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Chronological Archive • January 2005
January 28, 2005
Small breaths

From here via here:

During my senior year at college, my friends provoked each other, half in earnest, half mocking, with the question: "So, what are you going to do for the rest of your life?" The question's immensity made us laugh uncomfortably at our cloudy career paths. Now 33 years later, I realize that I missed the point completely - it's a trick question. There is no such thing as "the rest of your life." There is only now, and if you are going to accomplish anything, it has to be done in small breaths, one after the other.

Very Yogan, but some truth there, I think.

I am having my glasses relensed just now, which is complicated, and which means that posting will be done here in small breaths if at all until Monday.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:42 PM
Category: This and that
[0] [0]
January 27, 2005
Educate a woman and educate a family

The only thing I know about Rudy Manikan, and the only reference to him that I can find on the Internet, is that he was the guy (and I'm only guessing he was a guy) who said this:

If you educate a man you educate a person, but if you educate a woman, you educate a family.

At the top of google it said: Did you mean Ruby Manikan?, and after that, only the first two links are about Rudy Manikan. All the rest of them seem to be about Rudy Someone and Someone Manikan both getting involved in the same thing, list, whatever. I found the quote in a quote book, not on the Internet at all.

But if Rudy Manikan is right, and I suspect he may well be, then maybe all the stories like this are not such terrible news after all.

By the way, a little more googling, and it turns out that someone called Lucha Corpi said something very similar also. I don't know which of these two people came first or said it first, or whether the second one got to intdependently or stole it without realising, or what.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:19 PM
Category: This and that
[0] [0]
Grammar wars

I agree with this man, rather than this one. I've never taught writing, and if I did I might totally change my mind, but saying that grammar isn't an important part of teaching writing sounds to me like saying that the individual sounds of letters aren't important in teaching reading. And we all either do know what that last disastrous notion lead to, or we damn well should. Go here for some enlightenment if you don't know what I'm talking about.

Writing is grammar. And while we're about it, if you know some grammer, you'll make a whole lot more sense when you talk, also.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:23 PM
Category: Grammar
[1] [0]
January 26, 2005
Paul Graham on taking charge early

My thanks to Michael Jennings for emailing me the link to this speech to some high school kids (which he never actually gave) by Paul Graham.

I like, in particular, how the speech ends:

… you don't have to wait to start. In fact, you don't have to wait to be an adult. There's no switch inside you that magically flips when you turn a certain age or graduate from some institution. You start being an adult when you decide to take responsibility for your life. You can do that at any age.

This may sound like bullshit. I'm just a minor, you may think, I have no money, I have to live at home, I have to do what adults tell me all day long. Well, most adults labor under restrictions just as cumbersome, and they manage to get things done. If you think it's restrictive being a kid, imagine having kids.

The only real difference between adults and high school kids is that adults realize they need to get things done, and high school kids don't. That realization hits most people around 23. But I'm letting you in on the secret early. So get to work. Maybe you can be the first generation whose greatest regret from high school isn't how much time you wasted.

If I had to sum up my ambitions as a teacher, I would probably do it by saying that my ambition is either to help my pupils to live their lives, or persuade them to start their lives.

I of course regret that I didn't start my life, in Graham's sense, until I too was 23 or thenabouts.

I do have a one particular quibble with this quote, which is that I feel that the phrase "take responsibility" is not quite right. It suggests that the point of this exercise is that you will be able to justify what you have done to a third party, when that actually isn't the point. I prefer simply: take charge. Make decisions. Look at your actual options, and choose good ones. Look at your problems and tackle them rationally instead of just moaning and regarding them as insoluble. And do all this because, if you do, your own life will work better, not because some third party stroke boss will be impressed, which is what "take responsibility" suggests to me.

Which, by the way, explains why politicians are so fond of this phrase. They want people to take "responsibility" for things, and they will then decide if they are impressed. Conservative politicians, with their deeply ambivalent attitude towards freedom, are particularly fond of this phrase. We trust the people to decide for themselves, they say. But the people still remain "responsible" for the result, to them.

But my guess would be that what Graham means by "take responsibility" is what I mean by "take charge", and no more. And, it occurs to me, the word "charge" could give off just the same vibes to others as "responsibility" does for me.

Anyway, getting past words to meaning, the trouble is that management, even self-management, can be hard. And if someone else is managing your life agreeably, why bother to change what is basically a comfortable arrangement? The answer is of course that sooner or later you will have to manage your own life, and why not start learning how to do that good and early, by starting to do it, for the same reason that it helps to learn how to read and arithmetise early?

One of the recurring themes of Successful Person biographies is that the early circumstances of their lives - often involving disastrously incompetent (or simply dead) parents - oblige the future Successful Person to take charge of his own life, at a very young age. And often other lives too, such as younger siblings, or overwhelmed or sick mothers, etc. (Charles Dickens and Aristotle Onassis spring to mind.) Start doing this when you are only ten, and you get a decade's start at Real Life compared to the herd.

Much of current education and (particularly older) child rearing practice seems calculated to postpone this process ever further into the future. And then the adults hit the 23 (or more) year old with the whole shebang, all at once. Not clever.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:37 PM
Category: Learning by doing
[2] [0]
The unintended consequences of selective price control

Oxford University is allowed to charge the full wack for foreigners, but is forbidden to charge what it likes to locals and the government won't make up enough of the difference. So, it wants more foreigners and fewer locals:

Oxford University, under-funded by the Government by £95 million a year, is to cut the number of British undergraduates it admits and "vigorously" recruit more foreign students, who pay the full cost of their degrees.

The one-to-one tutorial system - the heart of Oxford teaching for almost 900 years – is to be reduced and more will be done by graduate assistants instead of "overworked" lecturers.

Applicants are likely to face new verbal reasoning and aptitude tests similar to those taken by pupils wanting to study medicine and law so as to eliminate the "tail" of under-performing students and ensure that only the brightest are admitted.

Dons will face regular reviews of their performance and a reduced role in governing the university following a drastic reduction in the "multiplicity" of its committees.

The reforms were part of a radical package announced yesterday by John Hood, 52, a New Zealand academic and management expert who took over as vice-chancellor three months ago, the first outsider to be appointed to the post.

Ah yes, those management experts, the bearers of bad news which the academics don't want to face but know they must. Just so long as Oxford University confines itself to doing management, and refrains from speaking it. (Missions statements, etc.)

Nations get poorer without realising it, and then suddenly they do realise it. This story reminds me of the stories I hear from France about how old French people can't afford to buy little houses in the country, because the foreigners are buying them all at prices beyond what they can manage.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:52 AM
Category: Economics of education
[0] [0]
January 25, 2005
A provocative posting on Samizdata

On Jan 21st – last Friday in other words – David Carr did a posting about the electronic tagging of schoolchildren. He produced this quote …

A school in Swansea is considering tagging its pupils because of a shortage of assistants who can supervise lunch breaks.

The idea is for children at Lonlas Primary to wear the tags all day, with a buzzer sounding if they leave.

… which he found here.

The point I want to make here is simply that there are now a lot (as of now: 84) of comments on this posting, dealing with the rights and wrongs of state education, home education, etc., of just the sort that regulars here will find of interest.

My only comment, off the top of my head, is that no one seems to have thought of asking the children if they mind being tagged. Although, I haven't read all the comments with total care, and maybe someone did say that and I missed it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:35 PM
Category: Technology
[1] [0]
The education of the Aviator

Today they announced that The Aviator has been nominated for eleven Oscars.

For some time now I've been meaning to do another of those celebrity educations postings, and today I got to wondering what kind of education Howard Hughes had?

HowardHughes.jpgI found an answer, albeit a brief one, here:

Education: Hughes attended private school in Boston, where he was better at golf than classwork. He was attending Thacher School in California when his mother died. In California, Hughes spent time with his uncle, Rupert, who inspired his later interest in filmmaking. Hughes never graduated from high school. Nonetheless, his father arranged for him to sit in on classes at Cal Tech by donating money to the school. Afterward, Howard returned to Houston and enrolled at Rice Institute (now Rice University). Howard, Sr. died suddenly a few weeks after his son turned eighteen. Young Howard inherited much of the family estate and dropped out of Rice.

I love that bit about his dad arranging for him to attend Cal Tech by donating money. Go capitalism!

Picture of Hughes from here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:17 PM
Category: Famous educations
[0] [0]
Paying children to stay on at school

Tonight and tomorrow I want to attempt (although I promise nothing) some slightly more substantial blog writing, maybe for here, maybe for elsewhere. So I just want to fling up something here to enable me to forget here for the day.

And the education news story from recent days that I have found most interesting just now has been this one:

The Government is set to give a £100 bonus to thousands of teenagers throughout the UK for continuing in education.

Under a scheme rewarding teenagers for carrying on in education after completing their GCSEs, children who have managed to maintain good attendance records over the past few months are to get a bonus £100 on top of their means-tested Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA).

That programme has seen students receive up to £30 per week since September, and of the 270,000 children across England who have taken advantage of the scheme, around three-quarters have good enough attendance figures to qualify for the bonus award.

The UK has one of the worst continuance rates for 16-year-olds in the industrialised world, but the Government's EMA scheme is designed to combat that by encouraging more teenagers from economically deprived backgrounds to further their education.

It is understood that the total cost of the bonus system will reach around £20 million, prompting criticisms from the Liberal Democrats that the payments are "excessive".

As educational outrages go, this one doesn't strike me as especially outrageous. Indeed, as a preparation for working life it seems to me rather better than demanding attendance in exchange for nothing.

Because it is a new and untried method of spending public money, this scheme has attracted lots of criticism, but honestly, many of the educational spending initiatives I read about tend to be far more wasteful. Presumably, any month now, all kinds of stories will start emerging about kids showing up for their money, but otherwise doing bugger all, but I'm guessing quite a few will genuinely benefit from the arrangement, quite aside from the money.

I of course hope that once the principle of paying children to do school work is accepted, this might lead to wider acceptance of the idea of children being paid to do work work. But alas, this scheme is more likely to be viewed as yet another way to entice children away from work work, to rescue them from it. Heaven forbid that children should ever do anything truly useful. That would never do, would it?

How about a compromise? Children (especially boys) leave school at 13, when they think it's stupid, and get paid to do work work. Then, they get paid to go back to school, when, at more like 17, they start to see the point of it. Just thinking aloud.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:24 PM
Category: Economics of education
[1] [0]
January 24, 2005
School bus spotted in London

In the USA the school bus, looking approximately like this …


… is a part of the national mythology. It is always yellow.

But I don't recall seeing any (specifically) school buses in the UK. Until today …


Spotted in the Kings Road, approximately 4 pm this afternoon, travelling west.

Maybe we have rather more school buses in the UK than I'm implying. But school buses in the USA are like our red pillar boxes or our black cabs, or perhaps more to the point like our red double decker buses. School buses are central items of Americana, all part of what makes America America. Yellow school buses, always with their bonnets sticking out in front, appear constantly in American high school movies. In The Simpsons the bloke who drives the school bus makes constant appearances. In the UK, school buses are nothing like such a big deal.

Why the difference, I wonder? Why do they rely on these things so much, and we so relatively little?

Is it because our regular buses are so much more regular, and can do the school run without even thinking about it, while they use cars for nearly everything, except for getting the kids to school, so they have to have a special bus for the school kids? Is that it? Or is it simply that I have only just noticed one of these things?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:25 PM
Category: This and that
[10] [0]
January 21, 2005
"… you'll have to accept that your world view will be curtailed …"

I've had another busy day today, but I did manage to find this depressing news from Germany:

… A German school official has ordered seven families homeschooling their children in Northwest Germany to enroll their children in public schools immediately, or the children will be forcibly removed by police and taken to school. Any resistance on the part of the parents will result in the children being removed from their homes, according to a Home School Legal Defense Association report.

The families argued that, as Christians, they wanted to protect their children from the godless and humanistic values being taught in public schools. They also assured officials that they were providing an adequate education through a German correspondence school.

County education director Heinz Kohler dismissed the families' beliefs, stating, "you and your children are not living in isolation on some island but rather in an environment posing intra- and extracurricular situations where you'll have to accept that your world view will be curtailed."

Kohler further explained that homeschooling could not be allowed as "children should not be encapsulated or kept apart from the outside world. In these cases, the parents' rights to personally educate their children would prevent the children from growing up to be responsible individuals within society…"

You will be socialised!

I found this at an American anti-abortion site. Americans can contemplate this kind of thing with relative detachment, but here in Britain, for anyone who favours the right to homeschool, it is different. Homeschoolers here must have in the back of their minds the thought that the EU might one day decide to "harmonise" the rules about homeschooling, and something tells me they probably wouldn't harmonise them in such a way that Germans would be allowed to homeschool. Although, I suppose that there is always that hope.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:30 PM
Category: CompulsionHome education
[3] [0]
January 20, 2005
Perry de Havilland says that old fashioned good grammar just might be making a comeback on the Internet

Earlier this evening I was socialising at Perry de Havilland's. It was essentially a meeting between these people and some of the starrier of these people, among them the people who actually first wrote the software that this blog uses to run itself. Had I truly understood who they all were exactly (one of them was definitely this lady and I sat next to this gentleman), I would probably have felt even more insignificant than I did.

I was only there at all in order to return a copy of a magazine in which an article about Adriana appeared, which I had been scanning in text and the photo from, and I had to leave early. But before I did, I picked up an interesting little observation from Perry de Havilland.

Perry spends quite a bit of time participating in on-line chat-rooms (please forgive my approximate spelling there) mostly on the subject of computer games, concerning which Perry is an enthusiast rather in the way that I enthuse about classical CDs. And Perry reckoned that he might (he's not sure but … might) have spotted an interesting trend, with clear educational vibes attached to it.

During the last year or so, Perry says, he thinks he has spotted, in the many chat-rooms he frequents, a somewhat new attitude towards English grammar. Whereas in former times, chatterers would chat away using very bad spelling, worse punctuation and with no apparent idea of the meaning of the word 'paragraph', such chatterers are now starting to be criticised by more orthodox and easily understood contributors. Several times lately, for instance, a chatterer has erupted with a list of queries presented as a slab of miss-spelt gobbledegeek, and the very first responder has responded along lines like these: "I probably could answer your questions, but first I would have to understand what the hell you are talking about, which I presently do not. Try spelling words correctly. Try using capitals at the beginnings of sentences. Punctuate. Arrange separate questions in separate paragraphs. In general, make an effort to be understood and to make sense. Until you do, I have nothing more to say to you." Harsh! But: interesting!

Will this kind of pro-grammar heckling have consequences? If it gets louder in volume and vehemence, then it is surely bound to.

Perry and I were interrupted about half way through making the following point, so this next bit may only be my opinion and not Perry's. But as I recall it we were both converging on the notion that what is happening here is that human beings, so to speak, are entering chat-rooms hitherto mostly inhabited by extreme geeks, and these humans are bringing with them their old fashioned ideas about how well-written English is easier to understand than semi-literate techno-babble, or just plain babble.

Personally, I am startled by the illiteracy and bad spelling of some (but not most) blog comments, not all of which is at all explicable as merely caused by haste and/or poor (or no) checking. But that is a value judgement, and is not the central point I am making here, i.e. that Perry was making. The point here is that old fashioned grammatical correctness, quite aside from how much people like me prefer it, may actually, as a matter of fact, be making a come-back, and what is more doing so in an arena hitherto assumed to be a force only for grammatical anarchy.

Personally I have had very little to do with chat-rooms, and a lot of that is because of my prejudice that they abound with – often deliberately – lousy grammar. Blogs, in general, certainly the ones I read regularly, tend to be far better written. They are written by humans, for humans.

Which is all part of why the people I met earlier this evening are all of them so splendid. I wish them all, both my friends in the Big Blog Company and the Six Apart/Movable Type possee, the very best of good fortune. They deserve it.

I checked this posting more carefully than usual for grammatical errors, for obvious reasons. Deep apologies for any grammatical errors that still remain.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:55 PM
Category: BloggingGrammarLiteracy
[2] [0]
January 19, 2005
Alice does maths

I am very busy today, but Alice has a post up about arithmetic, and about maths, one of the points being that the teaching of the forner can often screw up the teaching of the latter. For her, the big breakthrough in her teaching came when she made an abacus with paper clips, thereby answering the question: why?


Proper abacus picture, here, and this:

The abacus was the first known machine developed to help perform mathematical computations. It is thought to have originated between 600 and 500 BC, either in China or Egypt. Round beads, usually made of wood, were slid back and forth on rods or wire to perform addition and subtraction. As an indication of its practicality, the abacus is still used in many eastern cultures today. The abacus, an ancient product of the middle east, is really a full blown hand-held decimal calculator!

Ten out of ten.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:12 PM
Category: Maths
[0] [0]
January 18, 2005
Spanish Americans should not be deprived of English

Incoming email from Mark Alexander:

Thought you might be interested in this brief essay pointing out that withholding English from immigrants is racist.

I am. It's a good piece, too. The gist of it is that if English is not your first language, it is still your icket to full and free membership of the big wide world out there, and that ethnic leaders, in this case Hispanic leaders in the USA, don't want their flock to learn English, because that way they would cease to be their flock.

I love the cat picture, but do not understand it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:36 PM
Category: Languages
[3] [0]
A Muslim response to Mr Bell's speech

A predictable response to Mr Bell's speech yesterday (see immediately below):

THE HEAD of a Huddersfield Islamic school has called on England's chief education watchdog to resign after 'ignorant' comments about Muslim schools.

Samira Elturabi, head of Islamia Girls' High School on Thornton Lodge Road, said the comments of David Bell, the chief inspector of schools for Ofsted, were ignorant about the facts of Islam.

I don't think this is very clever. Indeed, I think that it illustrates some of the exact fears that Mr Bell was expressing. Calling on Mr Bell to resign, just because his grasp of the nuances of Islam is shaky is foolish. The way to respond to speeches like Mr Bell's is to realise that here is an opportunity both to put across some of the facts about Islam that are in the "better than you thought" category, and to demonstrate that Islamic leaders can handle criticism politely.

I would say that she gets, at best, no more than one out of two.

… Mrs Elturabi, who has been head at Islamia for three years, said Islamic education was full education.

She added: "We not only do Islamic studies such as Arabic and the Koran but we also do the full national curriculum programme.

"Schools in this country have a lot of behavioural problems, but in Islamic schools the students learn responsibility and to be caring.

"Mr Bell should resign. Before he gives a lecture like that he should understand Islam."

Mrs Eluturabi's school came joint third in the Kirklees education league tables published last week with 71% of students getting five 'good' GCSEs.

Assuming that this is an approximately accurate report of what Mrs Elutrabi said, then I think she has – shall we say? – struck a rather bad note. At best, she seems to have given the Huddersfield Weekly News the chance to make it sound like that.

I realise that Mrs Eluturabi may be a bit frightened. But I think she ought to show a greater understanding of how the world looks to the people she is – or ought to be – trying to influence and whose minds she is – ditto – trying to change. Telling Mr Bell that he should resign is likely to persuade Mr Bell, and many others, only that Mr Bell was right about the potential divisiveness of these schools, and of the people who run them.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:04 PM
Category: Islam
[0] [0]
January 17, 2005
The fear of Islamic education

My feeling about this speech, which has undoubtedly been the big education news story today, is that I am glad he said it.

Head of Ofsted David Bell sparked anger among Muslims today after warning that Islamic faith schools must not be allowed to threaten the coherence of British society.

A traditional Islamic education offered by a growing number of schools "does not entirely fit" children for life in modern Britain, the chief inspector of schools said.

Mr Bell singled out Muslim schools for failing to teach pupils their obligations to British society, and called on them to promote “tolerance and harmony”.

The Muslim Council of Britain described Mr Bell’s remarks as "highly irresponsible" while the Association of Muslim Schools accused him of "Islamophobia".

The head of England’s schools watchdog made his comments in a lecture on citizenship education to the Hansard Society in central London.

"Islamaphobia" – like its verbal parent "homophobia" – is a clever piece of propagandistic invention. The purpose of the word "islamophobia" is to say that anyone who fears Islam is in the grip of a mental disease, rather than saying anything which might be true. I am emphatically not Islamophobic, because I don't have any phobia about Islam. But it does often scare me. And if me and many others saying such things means that Islamic educators become scared themselves about how we might react to their activities in our midst, then good. I want them to think that we are watching them, and worried about them, and I want them to be on their best behaviour.

Mr Bell, judging by this report, was rather circumspect about his exact objections to Islamic education, and if he really was so circumspect, he might have done better to spell it all out a bit more clearly.

Let me do it for him, by saying what I fear about Islamic education.

I fear that Muslims are being taught to be cruel to their own women, or in the case of Muslim women, cruel to themselves. I fear that they are being told that forcing their women into loveless marriages that are not unlike domestic slavery is virtuous rather than vicious. I fear that Muslims are being taught to regard cruelties to non-Muslims are also morally tolerable rather than morally wrong.

Politically, I fear that Muslim schools are teaching Muslims to vote Muslim, in a way that will attempt to be tyrannical, and will actually be deeply divisive. And I fear that a small but significant minority of the pupils of such places might turn into the next generation of terrorists.

And I think that part of the way to prevent such schools cranking out bigots and Stepford wives and political pains-in-the-arse, and the occasional terrorist, is for the people in them, teachers and pupils alike, to know that in these particular respects they are not entirely trusted. On the other hand, if, after fifty more years of Muslim education in our midst, we are not overrun with bigots, and our politics continues to be reasonably smooth, and absolutely no terrorists have been incubated by such places, then fine, people like me (not me because I'll be long gone) will alter their prejudices and fears, and relax. Meanwhile, we're on our guard, and if Muslims don't like that, tough.

None of which is any excuse for any of the rest of us to be personally impolite to any Muslims, still less to commit crimes against them.

I am absolutely not scared that Muslim schools are doing a worse job of producing scientists and technologists and lawyers and doctors than are the regular state schools. If they do this worse, so what? Who cares? This only matters insofar as it gives the Devil and opportunity to find mischief-making work for idle brains. Meanwhile, my prejudice is that such schools probably do at least as well as the other schools.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:58 PM
Category: Islam
[2] [0]
January 14, 2005
"A distinction in cake decoration was worth more than an A grade in GCSE physics …"

Madsen Pirie comments on the row about how to measure school quality:

The Department for Education has issued new league tables to measure schools' achievement. They show that performance is up, especially at state schools. The news is not all good, however, because the validity of the new tables has been questioned. Controversially they include a range of vocational subjects not previously counted. The Independent Schools Council points out that certificates in cake decoration or pattern cutting and wired sugar flowers are deemed equivalent to GCSEs in English, mathematics and science. A distinction in cake decoration was worth more than an A grade in GCSE physics under the "absurd" system, it said.

There has been plenty of criticism from others, or Stephen Twigg wouldn't be dismissing it. Pirie continues:

Stephen Twigg, the School Standards Minister, dismissed the criticism as "old-fashioned educational snobbery," saying that the move reflected that "the world has moved on."

Why does "moved on" so often make you hear "got worse"? (Moveon.org = Gotworse.org - yes, that works too.)

Pirie ends his posting thus:

What is needed is outside evaluation. We prefer external assessment of a company’s credit worthiness rather than its own evaluation. Similarly, we could put more trust if outside bodies set the standards for school performance and measured their achievement. When the state measures its own performance, we have less confidence in its objectivity, or in the validity of its results.

Pirie also links to these two reports.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:21 PM
Category: League tables
[1] [0]
You can't touch me I'm part of the Union …

From today's Guardian:

Ruth Kelly had better watch out. She may have arrived as education secretary proclaiming herself the champion of parents, but it's pupil power which could jump up and bite her, for secondary school pupils are about to get their first union.

The English Secondary Students' Association (Essa) is the first union for 11-19-year-olds. It is the brainchild of secondary student, Rajeeb Dey, from Chelmsford in Essex, who heard that Ireland and most of Europe have a union, while England does not.

I wonder what the teachers' unions will make of that.

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, welcomed the move, saying: "It is essential to realise that children and young people are not merely citizens-in-waiting. They are citizens in their own right. So listening to what children and young people have to say is not just a matter of courtesy. It goes to the very heart of what it means to be an active citizen."

I agree, sort of, but I also want to vomit. Just a little.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:04 PM
Category: Politics
[3] [0]
January 13, 2005
Educational crisis in Berkshire

I thought that this posting was going to be about this story, as told in paragraph one:

LATER this month Brakenhale School will be officially no longer be classed as failing. This is great news and a huge testament to the hard work which has gone on over the two years it has been in what the government calls 'special measures'.

But it turns out that my posting is actually about paragraph two, which reads as follows:

It is difficult to underestimate how serious a crisis was at the back end of 2002.

I see two howlers in this short paragraph. First, to be charitable, let us surmise that a "there", or equivalent word, was simply missed, between "crisis" and "was". Either that or the "a" should be "the". But second, more seriously, "underestimate" should be "overestimate". You see this a lot, and it makes the hackles of my inner stickler, to use Lynne Truss' phrase in this book, rise. Can a stickler have hackles? The one inside me does.

Government inspectors were appalled by what they found, concluding that the children were not provided with a proper education.

This Bracknell News opinion columnist seems to have suffered educationally also.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:02 PM
Category: GrammarLiteracy
[0] [0]
January 12, 2005
Natalie gets educational

Natalie Solent seems to be in an educational mood just now. First there was this:

I hereby submit my new general theory on the learning of foreign languages. This article in Le Monde about the oil for food scandal was of particular interest because it was of interest.

I took O-Level French at sixteen. Since then, linguistic stagnation, slightly ameliorated by tourism. But since I've been on the internet and can read French stuff which is about things I want to read about I have started learning French again.

I have these little insights from time to time. The great thing about blogging is that you can exhibit them and win either way. If the so-called insight was and always had been obvious to the entire world apart from me it doesn't seem to matter. Readers simply do not linger there. But if the reaction is "Natalie, you have put into words that very thought most needed by a suffering humanity; here, take all my worldly goods as a partial recompense," that is OK, too.

I kept that last paragraph in not because it is especially educational, but simply because I like it. Bloggers are as good as their best postings, but not as banal as their worst. Discuss. Although I suppose the insight that if you write down an insight, you are more likely to reflect upon it intelligently, and if it is true and valuable to remember it, is educational.

And then for her next Natalie did a longer posting about the question of those little life skills, i.e. the kind of essential stuff that you may get taught at school, but may not. Like: cooking, sewing, keeping a diary and thereby keeping appointments. And I would add: typing and driving.

The first of these two Natalie postings actually says a lot about the second. You learn the life skills you are interested in learning. And I entirely agree with her that the Welfare State hugely interrupts that process, by dis-incentivising the learning of anything. Or, to put it another way, necessity is the mother of education.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:50 AM
Category: BloggingPoliticsThis and that
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January 11, 2005
James Tooley gets a bit of publicity …

James Tooley, Professor of Education at Newcastle University, has got himself some local media coverage:


Governments around the world are not capable of providing "education for all", a controversial North academic has argued.

A study by Newcastle University professor James Tooley says that in developing countries, private schools for the poor offer the best method of reaching targets set of getting all children into education by 2015.

Prof Tooley argues that private schools in the Third World are often superior to state schools and has called on the international community to throw its weight behind fee-charging schools.

The study, published in the Journal of the Institute of Economic Affairs, is the latest controversial statement from Prof Tooley, who was once described as the "high priest of privatisation" for his championing of the private sector.

And then they wheel on another expert to show that Tooley is talking nonsense.

I am a huge admirer of James Tooley, and of what he is trying to do, and the story he is trying to tell.

This piece tries as hard as it can to make it sound as if Tooley is (a) mad ("controversial"), and (b) recommending, in defiance of all regular behaviour and best practice, private schools for the Third World. But the real story Tooley has been reporting for the past several years now is that the Third World is already going full steam ahead with private education, and doing very well with it.

And what is more, Tooley has travelled extensively and observed this process, which you can't tell from this article.

Tooley's web presence is not very impressive, for a man with such an interesting message, and such a global one.

Tooley, as I say, travels a lot. He visits any number of interesting places. He sees all sorts of stories and meets lots of fascinating people doing fascinating things.

I know that as soon as anyone does anything interesting and valuable, people queue up to tell him he ought to be doing more, but … Tooley really should have a blog. And a digital camera.

He should, in short, combine his virtues and achievements with mine. Which is, I suppose, how advice tends always to go.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:48 PM
Category: Free market reforms
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January 10, 2005
Coffee and sex education

I googled for "education uk", but for some reason got to this excellent piece about sex education in China:

With prints of paintings by Picasso, Dali and Delvaux donning the walls, the cafe looks no different from others in Shenzhen, the booming southern Chinese city, except its name, Sex Cafe, which draws many curious young men to take a look inside, albeit blushing a little and tentative.

"The cafe is awesome," said a youngster surnamed Yu, who was surprised to find he could borrow books related to sex and surf Internet connections which provide addresses of websites giving advice on sexual health.

"Our service is to bring convenience for customers by combining sex education, sex counselling and free condoms into a one-stop shopping experience," said Tao Lin, director of the city's family planning centre, whose idea it was to turn the original sex education centre into a cafe.

"Backed by the local government, the cafe isn't run for profit, but for the social benefits of local residents," Tao was quoted as saying by China Daily.

Although China is opening up very quickly and perceptions are changing very fast, buying condoms and asking for help on sex issues remain embarrassing to many people.

"But a sex education cafe could make a difference," said Tao. "People won't feel embarrassed to come here in the name of grabbing a cup of coffee."

Interesting in all sorts of ways.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:03 PM
Category: China
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January 07, 2005
Education Rap

I am an erratic present giver to those to whom I should be giving regular presents, but this Christmas, Goddaughter II got lucky, and received four books from me by a favourite writer of hers, Cathy Hopkins.

I didn't get much of a chance to look at these books before they went off to Goddaughter II's home in the South of France, but I did, in this book, come across this, the work of the book's heroine:


That is a scan of a hasty (hence rather wonky round the edges) photocopy. Nevertheless, the sentiments are clear.

I'm pretty sure that this is how Goddaughter II feels about things too.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:33 PM
Category: Books
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January 06, 2005
Back to Paradise Primary

It is now close to midnight, and I have just spent the last two and half hours concocting this posting, about why there has been such a huge public response in this country and in other countries like it to the Asian Tsunami disaster. So I have little time for much now, today. Sorry.

Although, as it happens, the Tsunami thing was also on my mind this afternoon, when I paid my first visit of the new year to Paradise Primary, and reacquainted myself with Boy One and Boy Two.

Boy One was very pleased to see me and was his usual charming and accommodating self. I learned things about his family, e.g. that his father is gone. I quickly changed the subject to my father, also gone. Divorce? said Boy One. No, try the other thing. I'm old. My mum is very old. Ah, he said. I want to live for ever, he said. Death comes to us all, I said. He spent the first half of his session writing out PlayStation 2 gaming instructions, which I did not at all understand, but at least he was writing, and then glueing them in the book he has made, which I keep for him. At the end he allowed me to read him some more King Arthur stuff, and by the end was reading along himself. The half hour went by in no time.

Boy Two was, as usual, more withdrawn, and I was willing to do anything and talk about anything just to draw him out.

And I found myself asking him about the Tsunami. Did you hear about that? Yes, of course, but at least that was an easy one word answer that he pretty much was bound to give. Do you know where that was? No? Would you like me to show you? There was a globe nearby, and I gave Boy Two a brief geography lesson.

I can see why Tsunami studies are now so appealing to teachers. Lots of death and destruction and drama for the boys. Lots of caring and sharing for the girls. I prattled on for a minute or two, pointing at the affected places on the nearby globe. Want more? No, said Boy Two.

He glanced through a complicated football book, with many cards and pull out bits, and bits of mobile cardboard. Thank you, done that.

Then we played chess. I started by insisting that the pieces be arranged in the correct starting formation. I arranged mine correctly. He then rearranged his, with only a little help getting the king and queen right. He is good at recognising shapes, I think. When we played, I confined myself to insisting that he make legal moves, rather than especially good moves. He has much to learn about this game, but did not rebel against my refereeing.

Importantly, I hoped that he would at least be sensible about not chucking the pieces around the place, and when pieces got taken, I urged him to put the dead ones back in their little bags. By these modest standards he did very well. Since they told me when I started with him that he had "behavioural problems", I surmise that he is not always this well accommodating.

Was I too bossy? Perhaps. Was I too lenient, allowing him to do amusingly unpressurising things? Well, that's what we are told to do. Make a relationship, then worry about the reading. I remain to be convinced of the wisdom of that strategy, but also remain optimistic.

Interestingly, Paradise Primary itself was far less full of stray adults like me, in fact when I went in, the place seemed almost deserted. I had already been told me that the pre-Christmas period is unusually fraught. Compared to the post-Christmas period, it certainly was.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:57 PM
Category: Brian's brilliant teaching career
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January 05, 2005
The Head of Kamuzu Academy gets an MBE

If you look at all the postings I have previously done here about Africa, you mostly get bad news of the sort that is supposed to put what passes for bad educational news in Britain in severe perspective. Very bad news, in other words.

But here is a slightly more cheerful African education story, albeit with a strong British angle:

A HEADMASTER from Manchester who helped transform a school in the bush to the "Eton of Africa" has been awarded an MBE.

Francis Cooke, head of Kamuzu Academy for the past eight years, received the award in the New Year Honours list for services to education in Malawi.

He has worked in the heart of Africa for more than 23 years and is as delighted for the school to be recognised as he is for recognition of his own achievements.

Mr Cooke, 53, a father of four, who was born and raised in Hulme, and went to St Bede's school in Whalley Range, was named in the Overseas List category.

He said: "It is a great honour and I'm very proud for the school. It is a privilege to work in Malawi at a school that has survived some difficulties and gone from strength to strength.

"Kamuzu Academy has been described as the Eton of Africa because of its very high educational standards and ethos.

"It is a first-class grammar school with a library that is one of the best in its class. The pupils wear uniforms and boaters on the lines of the UK's best public schools."

Mr Cooke, who lives at an address in Walkden when he returns home for holidays, said the 408-pupil school - located in a tobacco, maize and coffee-producing region of Malawi – was founded in 1981 by Dr Kamuzu Banda.

Mr Cooke said: "I have been in Malawi for so long I'm now teaching the children of former pupils at the school, and that is a very rewarding feeling."

A British educational export of whom we can be proud, it would seem.

Quite how much Dr Kamuzu Banda contributed to this enterprise is unclear. I googled him, because … well, because "Banda" was also the name of the President of Malawi, Dr Hastings Banda, was it not? And it turned out that Dr Kamuzu Banda and Dr Hastings Banda were one and the same person.

Fair enough. Eton itself was started by someone pretty powerful, I shouldn't wonder.


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:37 PM
Category: Africa
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January 04, 2005
"A good tree will be fine …"

Happy New Year, and yes, I'm back, although I never did get around to saying when that would be. But anyway, Happy New Year.

Unless of course you or any of your near and dear have been hit for six (my metaphor is taken from cricket - a game much played in that part of the world) by the Great Wave, in which case deepest commiserations.

I've already done some education/tsunami blogging, linking from Samizdata to this amazing story, about how a girl learnt about tsunami's in a recent geography lesson and consequently saw this one coming, in the form of the lower water level that precedes the arrival of a giant wave. With such exceptional survival stories do we console ourselves even as we also read about tends of thousands of others who were not so lucky.

Joanne Jacobs was impressed too, and added this:

Tilly didn't just have the knowledge; she had the moxie to make her parents listen to her warning.

Indeed. Much more typical, alas, was this story from Tamil Nadu in India:

CUDDALORE: More than 560 schools situated in the coastal regions of Tamil Nadu have been affected by Black Sunday’s tsunami attack.

A preliminary state-wide assessment of these schools has revealed that as many as 200 institutions had been either reduced to rubble or partially damaged causing an estimated loss of over Rs 50 crore.

School Education Department sources said that nearly 2,000 classrooms would have to be reconstructed and a detailed survey was underway to assess the exact quantum of the loss.

Meanwhile, the Tamil Nadu Textbook Corporation (TNTC) is gearing up to meet the uphill task of distributing free textbooks and notebooks to tsunami-affected children before January 10, though it had lost its own stock of textbooks worth Rs 75 lakh to the hungry sea waves.

I don't know how much "Rs 50 crore" is, but I'm guessing: a lot.

It's a similar story in Sri Lanka, but with an arboreal twist. Sometimes trees deserve to be hugged:

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka's teachers are doing something not found in their job descriptions. Dozens are looking for sturdy, shady trees to set up outdoor classrooms.

Which just goes to show that when people want education, they get it. Not even a giant wave can stop it for very long.

"A good tree will be fine to start an open-air school in areas where we can't repair the building," said Medagama. "Some of the schools have just disappeared and some have collapsed," Medagama said. "Those which are standing will need furniture and massive cleaning. But this is not going to stop us from restarting schools."

The corollary is that when people don't want education, fancy buildings are not likely to change that very much.

I say: give generously.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:16 PM
Category: AsiaGeography
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