Category Archive • Boys will be boys
June 21, 2004
How to teach arithmetic to boys

I've spent most of my blogging time today writing a ridiculously long piece about the complexities of qualifying out of the group matches at the European Soccer Championships, and a link from here to there is all I can offer today.

Here, gratuitously, is the picture I used to illustrate the kind of stuff I was writing about.


The educational relevance? Well, simply that sporting arithmetic is a great way to teach arithmetic to small boys. I still remember with pleasure the day I explained about fractions to a small boy, by talking about a soccer game.

And I dare say there's even the occasional girl who might be persuaded to take maths a bit more seriously with talk about sport.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:35 PM
Category: Boys will be boysMathsSport
March 19, 2004
Douglas Bader 2: Drill

I can keep appointments for something like a radio broadcast or a medical examination. But I am appalling procrastinator. (I do daily postings at my personal blogs because if I didn't, entire months would go by postingless.) If there is no fixed moment when I have to start, and I am able to postpone by a few more hours, then I do, and the hours pile up for ever.

An example of this is that a really quite long time ago, I did a posting with a title that began something like "Douglas Bader 1". Since which time there has yet to materialise any Douglas Bader 2 posting of any sort. This I will now correct.

Douglas Bader was the man who was a young star in the Royal Airforce but who had both himself and his career cut short when he lost his legs in a flying crash. Only the Second World War gave him a chance to get back into the RAF, and he duly distinguished himself in that conflict and became a classic Great British Hero.

Here is a description (again, from this book) of how they made (and still make I assume) RAF officers.

The Senior NCOs had the greatest responsibility for teaching the Flight Cadets the ways of the Service, instructing them in ground school and on the drill ground, berating them, exemplifying authority and responsibility, inculcating self-respect, self-discipline and self-control. Bader and many others recalled that it was the Senior NCOs who taught the cadets how to become officers.

Each squadron had an NCO drill instructor - a flight sergeant or a sergeant - who was responsible for training cadets to the high standards of drill practised by the Cadet Wing. Before attaining that, cadets would not be allowed to join their squadron on parade. There was a Wing Sergeant Major who was the Senior Drill NCO. He was the final arbiter of a cadet's fitness to join the Wing on parade. Every morning, the two squadrons were called by bugle to the parade ground, and inspected - meticulously, ruthlessly. Each Saturday morning there was the Colour Hoisting Parade.

Drill and flying were the two most important parts of the daily routine. Academic and ground studies were secondary, but not markedly so. Cadets had to undergo a great deal of drill. First, there was basic drill, then arms drill. It took about a month of intensive foot and arms drill every working morning to reach the standard required to perform as a team with the Squadron and the Wing.

A good way of fostering team spirit and formation, drill was an important part of training. It stimulated team work, and required concentration and alertness. It taught cadets all about parading and ceremonials, for they too would have to command and supervise such things one day. Later, as Fourth Termers, cadets had to command the Wing on parade. Bader became under-officer of his 'A' Squadron.

Does drill count as "education"? Maybe not. But a few generations ago it would have, because boys used to do this kind of thing at school.

I did drill at school. I was made to. Bastards. But it was good exercise, and if I'd been allowed to choose I might have chosen it. I especially liked the music that was always played: Elgar's Pomp and Circumstances marches.

The serious thing that drill teaches is cooperation. It isn't the only kind of cooperation you'll ever do, but it is one of them, and it has one huge merit when compared with something like sports: it is extremely easy to do. Practically anyone can do drill.

And when it comes to "educating" soldiers, drill is essential. I know, I know, what's a libertarian doing having nice words to say about drill? But unless you are a pacifist, you have to acknowledge that there are times when (a) you have to fight, in a group, which means (b) that you had better do some drill. Armies that do drill fight better.

Lots of civilians regard drill as an inherent insult to their individual humanity, and in a sense it is just that, and on purpose. But if you have experienced the difference that drill can make to a body of soldiers (or in Douglas Bader's case airmen) then you will have learned something (not everything, but something) of the difference between effective and efficient cooperation and the more usual sort, which only brings to bear about 15% of the available energy.

This is a lesson worth learning. Those who refuse to learn it - as I refused to learn it at my school (I just marched back and forth in a state of contemptuous resentment) - shouldn't be forced to go through the motions. But if you volunteer for it, you could really learn some worthwhile stuff.

The way to correct procrastination is to devise a drill for yourself, and then do it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:59 PM
Category: Boys will be boysFamous educations
November 21, 2003
Etonians will be Etonians

I grew up a bus-ride away from Eton, the ultra-posh school in Windsor – Windsor being where my primary school was. But I never wanted to go to Eton. One of the reasons for that was the Eton Wall Game. So far as I understand it, you have to shove a big ball along a big wall and past a line. Or something. It's played between two brands of Etonian called Oppidans and Collegers, whatever they are.

How come, the non-aficionado will ask, that such a slow and at times painful sport survives?

Non-aficionado. That would be me.

One answer is simply that it has done so since at least the 1760s and probably longer: the wall was built in 1717. Another is that it gives the 70 collegers, who like to think of themselves as the brains of Eton, the chance to show that they are anyone's equal at games too. The wall game is essentially a collegers' sport: even now, they have a ceremony in piam memoriam JKS – J.K. Stephen, a great colleger player (and in later years a very minor poet) of the 1870s. Collegers have more chance to play than most oppidans do, and greater skills can make up for the greater brawn available among their more numerous rivals.

A third reason may seem unbelievable to those who have never played this game: it's fun. Buried in that sweating, unmoving bully are skills and achievement that few watchers – not even the boys looking down from atop the wall – will see, let alone understand. Boys like rough games. They like to have skills, even arcane ones. They like to compete, however eccentric the game. Ask the synchronised swimmers, the shot-putters, the hop-skip-and-jumpers before you rush to mock the world's dullest game.

Not all boys feel this way. Trust me. I don't mind watching rough games but I don't care to play them thank you, and I never did. I've never forgotten or forgiven being made to box, against my clearly stated will, at the age of eight. Presumably nobody is made to play this Eton game, and assuming that's so, fine, play up, play up etc.

I got to this via her and she got to it through these guys . That's the blogosphere for you. That's a game I like a lot.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:33 PM
Category: Boys will be boys
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
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
August 29, 2003
Who says schools don't encourage sport?

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

And a commenter linked to this.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:09 PM
Category: Boys will be boys
August 20, 2003
Australian boys won't be boys (official)

More Australian sadness:

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:07 PM
Category: Boys will be boys
August 14, 2003
Combining soccer with education – people are already thinking about it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did I say twelve?

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

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

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:10 PM
Category: Boys will be boysFree market reforms
August 12, 2003
Carry on schooling

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

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

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

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

But we never had anyone like that English mistress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:49 PM
Category: Boys will be boysHistoryThe private sectorViolence
July 24, 2003
Joanne Jacobs – an appreciation

Joanne Jacobs writes:

Twelve months ago today, I set Sitemeter running. I should hit 296,500 by the end of the day. I'm running at more than 1,000 visits a day during the week, about 600 on weekends. Not bad for an education blog. I'm not sure how many visits the grand total would run to: I started in January, 2001, but didn't keep count of visitors.

Not bad indeed. I haven't set up a Sitemeter or any other such device, because I'm one of those scrawny take-it-or-leave-it bloggers. I do my bloggings, and who knows what they make of it? Maybe the occasional thing sticks. Occasionally you see one of them getting some flash of insight which makes it all worth while. But a machine to see whose paying attention? Don't want to think about that just yet.

My point is that whereas this blog here is still a blog groping into proper shape and proper existence (a redesign and a reorganisation is in the pipeline plus any month now I may start doing some actual educatingwhich will liven things up here considerably), Joanne's is the real thing and has been for some time.

She has a great long list of blogs and non-blogs on the left. Good blogs, fun blogs, also good, good books. And what item is at the very top of her list of things? Well, by virtue of this being in the "edublog" category and by virtue of Brian starting with B which is very close to the start of the alphabet … (being called Brian does have its advantages) … yes, you've got it, this blog is the absolute top of Joanne's list. Ahead of all manner of aristobloggers and grandees of every sort.

This must have helped my traffic, and this is me saying thank you. When you get the drips from the biggest hole in a big bucket like this, you get a lot of water. It must be. Obviously some come here, take a look and leave it at that. But equally obviously, a few must be staying around. I don't go on about American edubloggers and their postings, because my aim here is to expand the edubllogosphere beyond the confines of the USA, but this is not something I can just ignore.

So, to make an exception, let's take a look at Joanne's latest posting. It's about some parents who put their twelve year old son and his friend in the trunk during a twenty mile car journey. The official version is that they did this because they were abusive monsters of the sort who can't be trusted to have children let alone raise them, and that junior should be taken into whatever they call "care" over there, which would be the equivalent of locking the trunk for ever, I would say. Well, what I mean is, the authorities didn't like it. The parental version is that the kids thought it might be fun to do, so they said okay.

Lt. Joseph Jordan, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel County Police Department, said the parents are lucky no one was hurt.

All parents are "lucky no one was hurt", all the time. But I agree, that's not a reason to nail them to the kitchen wall or keep them in rabbit hutches, to educate them about pain, life, etc.

"Obviously, there was a lot of danger there," Jordan said on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America. "They're supposed to be in seat belts. If there would have been a rear-end collision, they could have been seriously injured. So we feel that it was reckless to put the kids in the trunk," Jordan said.

Ah yes. Seat belts. I forgot.

Twelve year old boys, taking risks. Whatever next? And we definitely mustn't help them do that. Twelve year old boys who want risk must live a further three years without risk of any kind, and then do the adolescent rebellion running-away-from-home crazy-sex and crazy-drugs thing. There's a proper way to do these things, sir, ma'am. We're policemen, and we know about this stuff.

None of this could ever happen in Britain, because here we call it the "boot".

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:01 PM
Category: BloggingBoys will be boys
April 30, 2003
Mr Clarke plays for success

This is a national education story with a difference:

The Chelsea chairman, Ken Bates, was today branded a "disgrace" by the education secretary, Charles Clarke, because his football club was the only one in the Premiership not to be involved in a scheme aimed at boosting children's grasp of the three Rs.

Impressively adopting suitable football vernacular, Mr Clarke said Mr Bates was "out of order" and added he was showing the Chelsea chief the "yellow card".

Mr Clarke declared: "He won't sign up. He has got to ask himself, is Chelsea a serious community club or is Ken Bates just looking for a fast buck?" Mr Clarke added that he hoped relegation-threatened West Ham won their match against Chelsea when the London rivals meet on Saturday. A defeat for Chelsea would seriously undermine their ambitions to play in the lucrative Champions League next season.

Mr Clarke, speaking on his way to open centres at Burnley and Preston North End, was criticising Chelsea's failure to set up an after-hours study centre for primary and secondary pupils who struggled with English and maths, under a scheme known as Playing For Success.

I have extremely mixed feelings about this story. On the one hand, the fact that just one out of all the football league clubs in the land has resisted this scheme strongly suggests to me that a great deal of government money is involved or how come all the other clubs did sign up? On the other other hand, the basic idea of the scheme is a good one, which I have already myself invented without realising that the government was a couple of years into attempting approximately what I had said someone should try. The basic idea is: don't rely on crusty old corduroyed failures and peacenik wimmin to nag children into learning to read and write; instead get a few sporting jocks to sell the message and jolly them along.

"All the other Premiership clubs recognise that football provides motivation and excitement for young men and women. Most of them recognise they should use that to redistribute money and show a bit of commitment," he said. The latest evaluation of Playing For Success showed almost nine out of 10 children thought the centres were fun and interesting.

I don't know anything about this scheme other than that the Department for Education and Training says that it is it is working, but then it would, wouldn't it?

The average "maths age" of primary pupils rose by 17 months and that of secondary age children by two years. While primary pupils failed to make significant progress in reading, secondary pupils' literacy improved by about eight months, according to a survey of more than 1,300 children by the National Foundation for Educational Research.

The foundation said: "The football/sports club setting proved attractive to pupils and was a strong element in motivating pupils to become involved in Playing For Success. They felt privileged to be selected rather than singled out as in need of extra help. Once at the centres, pupils responded positively to many aspects of the initiative, especially using computers and the internet.

"They enjoyed the work, felt they had made progress and were grateful for the help they received. They also benefited from the opportunity to meet people and make new friends."

That sounds good. And Mr Clarke's abuse of Chelsea Chairman Ken Bates is probably just his way of making sure that what he's doing gets noticed. He reckons this is going well, and not everything he does is such good news, so he's beating the drums about this, one of the drums being Ken Bates. It got my attention, didn't it?

I'm not bothered about Bates. He can look after himself. But this story does give you a taste of the bullying and grandstanding that less resilient individuals are now being subjected to by Mr Clarke. Imagine being a Head Teacher whom Mr Clarke has taken against. Imagine deciding whether to apply to be a Head Teacher in the first place when you read a story like this about the man who could be breathing down your neck.

Other doubts. It all seems to be being "rolled out" in a bit of a rush. It could all go terribly wrong when some angle I hadn't thought of any more than Mr Clarke has turns out not to have been thought through, and in two years time, instead of being a national success story, it could be a national scandal, like that racket when the same ministry lost fortunes "helping young people" to learn about computing skills, and the money just disappeared into the pockets of the various crooks and conmen who stepped forward to run the various "training schemes". That couldn't happen again, I don't suppose, but something else equally bad might. Suppose half the clubs are only going through the motions, and suppose the kids involved smell this and lose interest themselves, and the money keeps flowing in exchange for a lot less than at first looked likely. If I had to bet what the bad news would end up being, I'd bet simply: it'll end up costing too much per head of educational improvement.

Perhaps the biggest bad news that could lie hidden in this story is all the initiatives along similar lines, but more exactly along lines that they truly approved of, that these various sports clubs might have launched by themselves and in true cooperation with each other, un-badgered and un-bribed by the likes of Mr Clarke and his minions. It might have started more slowly, with only a few clubs involved at first, but if it had worked it might perhaps have ended up doing a lot better, and eventually on a far bigger scale. Now we may never know. This is the crowding out effect, and the problem is, not only do you not foresee problems like this before they strike, you are liable to miss them during and after also, because the heart of this effect is a great absence of activity, a great might have been, a great nothing where they only might have been something.

The idea of this scheme is that state education will feed off the dynamism of the non-state-run world of professional sport, and be newly energised. But what if what really happens is that a little bit of nationalised education is simply dumped down in a corner of each sports club, and then settles down to cause trouble, confusion, political grief and general bad news, and in a way that ends up innoculating all such clubs in ever having anything further to do with education?

What if Ken Bates has seen something that I and Mr Clarke haven't seen that might go wrong, and is keeping clear for a good reason, despite all the bullying and the bribery? Although, it could just be that land in Chelsea costs more than anywhere else in Britain and Bates isn't been paid or bullied enough to take the loss of surrendering his valuable space, even for a few hours every week.

Well, I've done this piece now, and even if no else reads the BEdBlog archives, I do, and I'll try to remember this story and get back to it, to see how it develops.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:38 AM
Category: Boys will be boysPolitics
March 14, 2003
Girls will be girls and boys will be men

One other Big Issue that I've not mentioned so far this week, which cropped up in my conversations last weekend with my Kent teacher friend, is the matter of gender segregation.

My friend works in a huge boys-only school with nearly two thousand pupils. Discipline-wise and learning-wise it is all over the place, the way he told it. Not wise at all, in other words. But, just across the road is an all-girl school, nearly as big, where things run much more smoothly.

The consensus to the effect that this is exactly what we should expect is one that I've already referred to here. That girls tend to do best in an all-girl school, while boys do worst in an all-boy school, was strongly confirmed by my friend, both from his direct experience, and from the general teacher-gossip he's picked up over the years.

Here is the same fact cluster being referred to by Joan Bakewell, in some comments by her about the St Hilda's College Oxford row. St Hilda's have narrowly voted, again, not to allow men in, and JB is pleased, but fears that the decision may eventually be reversed.

But of course if this prejudice is right that girls need all-girl schools while boys need not-all-boy schools, then something has to give. A commenter on my earlier posting pointed out that "the market would solve it", in the sense that some people care about these things more than others, and the market would enable the necessary trade-offs and compromises to be made. But that is still a compromise.

So here's a possible answer that is not a compromise. Leave the girls in their all-girl schools, unless they are desperate to be one of the boys. But, abandon the idea of educating the great mass of boys in similar places to the girls, or to the places we try to educate them in now. Instead, put them in the company of men. Let them go to work.

What if, in other words, the trouble with all-boy schools is not just that they are all-boy in the sense of lacking girls, but in the sense of lacking human beings of any other kind whatever? – except for a few wretched "teachers", who scarcely count as humans at all, so outnumbered and overwhelmed are they.

If we allowed the boys out to work, they would be much more intensely taught, by a much greater number of men giving them a total of far more adult male attention than they get now from their "teachers".

Actual juvenile work, of the sort that the rest of us actually want to have done, not just trudging through GCSEs, also pulls the economics of this into shape, and pays for the massively increased adult-to-boy ratio that is needed to solve this problem.

Work will also give the boys some money, and more fundamentally some status in the world, such as they can now only carve out for themselves with criminality. Patient and studious boys now survive the long wait for adulthood. Most boys can't manage it without grief to all concerned.

We shouldn't abandon the idea of old fashioned education for boys – with the whole paraphernalia of desks and books and lecturers. But we should feed this into their adolescences gradually, not in an all-or-nothing great glob of academicness which they either stick with all round the clock or are chucked out of for ever.

The typical fourteen year old sould be spending most of his working day on the lower reaches of the adult male pecking order, learning to run a factory, learning to mind the shop or man the phones or guard the territory, making tea for senior bureaucrats and sitting in on the big male arguments in the canteen. He wouldn't be out tormenting the hell out of school geeks or getting the sillier girls into trouble or driving the police crazy, or not as much as he does now. He'd be learning some manners, from people he'd be willing to listen to. And learning a lot else besides.

Then, when our later-teenage box-shifters and till-minders and tea-makers get a bit older and can see the point of it, welcome them back into the academies, if they want to come back or if they haven't by now joined an academy in the real world, like a company training scheme.

Forcing young male noses into books when they want to be flexing their muscles and minds outside is a waste of everyone's time. Chucking them out of their schools at exactly the moment when, if nature had been allowed more naturally to take its course, they might have got interested in such stuff, is a further huge cruelty, a life destroyer.

Reversing this idiotic procedure would give the boys a chance to sample adult life before making irrevocable decisions about it. They could shift boxes, and see the world, and talk the world through with the older guys, and then later, make some intelligent educational moves.

My Kent school teacher friend added another crucial item of evidence. He reported that the Daily Mail and its readers are also right about the vital importance of a father. The correlation, he says between boys who's parents don't attend in a respectable male-female duet on parents' day but who only have a mother show up, or nothing at all, is so huge as to be unignorable. Boys with mums and dads behave during their early teens, during The Wait. Boys with only mums are the ones who are out of control. The present government policy is to fine our lone mum if her son misbehaves. Well, that might work, if the son truly loves his mother enough not to want to get her into trouble. But what if it doesn't work?

The real answer is to lower the legal school leaving age and legal working age, for boys (but for girls too if that's what it takes), to thirteen. (While we're at it, I'd give them all the vote.) The next best thing to a real dad is not a succession of "uncles", or the intrusive power of the state; it is male authority outside the failing home.

I am of course thinking aloud here. But that's all part of what I started this blog to do.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:07 PM
Category: Boys will be boys
March 10, 2003
Teachers with status in the real world

Well, I'm back from the depths of Kent, and I did learn a lot of use to writing for this. However, I'm afraid I made a mistake about the "Assistant Head" bit. I was muddling my friend up with another of my friends. I don't know why I did this, but I did. Sorry to you all, and especially to him if he ever gets to read this.

As it happens, my friend's relatively low place on the teacher pecking order had a direct bearing on one of the many interesting things he told me, which is that boys behave well or badly according to the status of their teacher on the teacher pecking order. "Authority" is not something that you can just whistle up with some clever body language, or not completely anyway; it is also a function of your true place in the world, of how much clout you have with the other males who matter. So a new teacher is almost certainly fair game, no matter how much "charisma" he may have, or think he has.

Question. How much does clout in the "real world" - clout outside the world of the school - count for anything, in the eyes of these teenage boys, as they size up their prey and wonder whether to launch a pack attack?

After that posh prep school I went to, I went on to another posh private school (or a "public" school, as we Brits so confusingly call these places), a school called Marlborough. I mention this partly to impress everyone, of course. It's about damn time it started to count for something that I went to one of these places. But I do have a point. Which is: that Marlborough was full of teachers (or "masters" as they were called) with "real world" clout, and often of the particular sorts that most impress teenage boys, such as sporting prowess.

I was taught English by a man called Dennis Silk, whom I remember with fondness because he was the first teacher I can recall who seemed genuinely to enjoy the things I wrote. But more to my point, this Dennis Silk was a star cricketer. He made centuries in the Oxford v. Cambridge cricket matches (at a time when the standard of Oxbridge cricket was a lot higher than it is now), and he even captained an England touring team, to New Zealand. He wasn't the absolute cream of the crop, be he was pretty close to it. Later he became the President of the MCC. Non-cricket enthusiasts won't grasp all the detail of that, but my point is, we Marlburians did.

Another of my teachers was a man called Kempson, who taught me non-Euclidian geometry, or who tried to. I can't say I remember much in the way of non-Euclidian geometry, but I do vividly recall the immense merriment this man used to take in getting us to understand what it was all about, if only temporarily. And this Mr Kempson was, in a former life, a member of the 1935 Everest Expedition. (This was the expedition which included George Mallory, who, many people believe, did actually conquer Everest but who sadly died in the vicinity of the summit before anything could be proved, if there was anything to prove. Mountaineers still debate this, I believe.)

[UPDATE: Wrong. I've since learned that Mallory died on a previous expedition, in, I think, 1924. Apologies. Luckily this doesn't affect the point I'm making.]

There were plenty of other alpha males of this sort at Marlborough, teaching history and geography, maths and physics, reading the lessons in chapel, coaching sports teams, and generally keeping their eyes on things. I don't know for sure exactly how much difference it made to school discipline, because I can't compare matters with how they might have been in the absence of such people. But I'm pretty sure it did make a difference. I reckon these people kept us in order far more efficaciously than a staff would have that consisted only of non-alphas in corduroy jackets who knew nothing but the subjects they taught and had done nothing with their adult lives except teach them.

I guess your average bog standard (as the unlovely British phrase goes) secondary school doesn't contain many people like this. I've often thought that all those clapped out rock stars who now sit about in their mansions dreaming of making hit parade comebacks might make excellent school teachers. They have a been-there done-that atmosphere about them that might make a real contribution to the general willingness of boys to follow the lead that the schools are trying to impose upon them. Ah well.

This is not a posting about whether "imposing" on boys is a good or a bad thing. But I will now say that in my opinion a culture in which teenage boys are not in any way imposed upon by grown-up men is a culture which will have problems.

I'm not a voluntarist and a libertarian about education because I think that adult authority doesn't matter. I think that adult authority is, other things being equal, a very good thing. As I will, I'm sure, be arguing, in any follow-up pieces (besides this I mean) that I may manage to my earlier one entitled What is authority?, that the voluntary principle and authority go hand in hand extremely well. But authority and the voluntarism aren't the same thing, and places like Marlborough prove that you can have plenty of the first without a huge amount of the second.

This nugget of wisdom about status and how it relates to school discipline was by no means the only one that I acquired from my friend the Kent school teacher. I'm thinking now that I'll make the conversations we had into my theme of the week here. He knows who he is. My thanks to him for his wisdom, to say nothing of his hospitality.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:56 PM
Category: Boys will be boys
February 17, 2003
Only Hitler will do

There's an interesting story from the Independent today about the
"Hitlerisation" of history teaching in British schools.

History lessons for secondary pupils are now dominated by the study of Adolf Hitler and the Second World War, the Government's school inspectors have found.

A report by Ofsted, the school inspection body, warned that the "Hitlerisation" of courses threatened to damage understanding of history, and could result in pupils leaving school ignorant of key events.

Of all the history lessons monitored during the last school year, more lessons focussed on Hitler's Germany than on any other topic.

For once I find myself fascinated by a national education debate.

Assuming Ofsted are telling the truth, and despite my general reservations about Ofsted I do assume this here, why has this happened? Well, I don't know all the reasons, but here are some speculations.

First, it is surely easier to teach the history of the recent past than of the more distant past. Grandfathers talk of the events in question. You don't have to rely on history books to try to provoke interest in events long past.

The significance – the "relevance" - of recent events is also obvious. Had the Battle of Britain been lost, we'd now be ruled by strutting Nazis, etc. Demonstrating that it now matters who won the Hundred Years war of even the Battles of Trafalgar or Waterloo is a lot harder.

Second, we live in a televisual age. The Second World War is the first major historical event for which television programme makers have an abundance of illustrative film footage. How much easier it would be to make documentaries about Waterloo if there was footage of Napoleon striding about the battlefield, rousing the French people to one more effort, studying maps and issuing orders! As it is, all we have is the occasional item of pre-photographic propaganda, with every detail controlled by Napoleon himself, and no real chance of unwelcome truths slipping through to posterity the way Hitler's movies now give many of his games away.

But what of the period since the Second World War. Why is that not taught more in schools? Are there not dramas there to excite children, which they can learn about from their parents, let alone their grandparents? Yes there are, but many of the most dramatic stuff is rather embarrassing, from the political point of view.

A digression. I surmise that the problem of history teaching is the teaching of boys. It may not be proper to say such things, but, let's face it, girls are more biddable than boys. They will pay attention to whatever they are told, more than boys. So boys are the problem, and how do you interest boys? Not with dreary stuff about the rise of the welfare state or the glories of nationalisation. No, you have to talk about aeroplanes and rockets, wars and conquests.

And the bitter truth for the largely left-inclined teachers of Britain is that the stories most calculated to fascinate boys are the stories which these people are least well equipped to tell honestly. To put it bluntly the truth about the last fifty years of history (of the sort involving guns and rockets) has been largely right wing. The Cold War was essentially a battle between good and evil, with the good guys eventually winning, and with the lefties on the wrong side. Decolonisation has been, to put it mildly, a very mixed story, and in Africa a serious disappointment (to put it no more strongly). All very arkward to explain if you are a lefty history teacher. Best to ignore all that.

And what of the Second World War itself? The larger picture is also a decidedly embarrassing story. The mid-1930s equivalents of CND are among those who now stand accused of having, in effect, caused the thing, by arguing that Hitler should have been ignored rather than confronted. The massive contributions to the victory of the Allies by the Americans are embarrassing, because Americans are, you know, Americans, who did far better than PC people now like to admit. And Stalin's USSR, which made a comparably massive contribution to victory, was at that time behaving far worse, both to its own citizen victims and to anyone else it got its claws into, than PC people now like to admit or even think about.

All of which leaves: Adolf Hitler. There is nothing else left (in either sense) to talk about. Only when contemplating the minutiae of Hitler's ghastly career and ghastly opinions and delusions, and ghastly crimes against the civilian populations of Europe, is the average British lefty able to contemplate the details of the recent past with some semblance of equanimity. Hitler is the answer to lefty prayers. Provided lefties can forget the national "socialist" bit, and dress Hitler up as Right Wing, as well as the ultimate in evil, which by and large they have been able to do, they can put across a story to the next generation that they are comfortable with. And there are an abundance of documentaries on the TV to illustrate the story. (And why are there so many of those? See all of the above.)

As I mentioned in my discussion of the bias honestly displayed by Sean Gabb in his teaching activities, bias is not just in how you teach this or that; it is in what you choose to teach in the first place. I speculate that the Hitlerisation of British history teaching in schools is a fine example of this fact. It's not that the Cold War is mistaught in schools, with the Soviets being presented as the wronged victims of predatory Americans obsessed with selling guns and rockets to each other and with frustrating the poor of the earth in their quest for their own various versions of national socialism. The Cold War just isn't taught at all. Too "complex". ("Complex" is always the word used by people who find the truth too uncomfortable to deal with.)

And the other reason why British national history from the more distant past isn't taught is that the PC tendency isn't comfortable with national history at all. They prefer global history. The anti-PC right has gone on about this ad nauseam which is why I have put that explanation more to one side. Besides, here I sympathise with the lefties, in the sense that I also would like to see some global history, alongside the local stuff. But Hitler satisfies me as an historical topic also, because those ghastly ambitions of his were global and he was a threat to the whole world.

But, he is also a very acceptable subject for British nationalist, anti-PC, anti-lefty teachers to teach, because the defeat of Hitler is the last truly impressive thing that the British Nation has been heavily involved with. Since then what has Britain contributed to in a big way? There's only rock and roll, really. Apart from that, very little. NATO? The EU? Yawn. So Hitler even satisfies the anti-PC anti-lefty nationalists as a history topic.

Hitlerisation can be seen as like the little bit in the middle of one of those maths diagrams where the circles of interest of the various parties involved all intersect and overlap. So, that's what is concentrated on. Hitler is someone we can all agree about.

And, there are videos.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:52 PM
Category: Boys will be boysHistoryPolitics
December 31, 2002
An army view of British education

A friend of mine is a British army officer. I dined with him the other night and he asked me about this blog and how it was going. Fine I said, and I started to ask him about the army approach to education, by which I meant how the army goes about educating its people. He did eventually give me an excellent and detailed answer to that question, which I hope to tell you all about at a later date, but before that could happen, he dived in with a most interesting spiel about how the army sees education, by which he meant the education system that its recruits come from, while making it very clear that what he was saying wasn't just his own opinion, but was something that army officers as a whole all tend to agree about.

He focused on two particular changes that seem to have been happening in the raising of young men in our society. (1) They tend nowadays to lack "physical robustness", at any rate compared to former times, and (2) they tend to have no understanding of authority, ditto. These were the two big things that he emphasised.

By robustness he meant that young men tend nowadays seem to have no notion of how you can stick at some physical task even though it might be hurting. Pain is not necessarily the same thing as damage, and might actually be a sign of a growth in physical strength, but the latest army recruits didn't seem to get that, and had to be taught about it.

Second - the authority thing - well, that seemed to be related to the fact that the sort of men who now go into the lower ranks of the army have a serious statistical tendency not to have fathers and in general not to have had any history of knuckling under to any disciplined regime.

You can see how these two things are actually pretty closely related. In fact they are but different aspects of the same fact.

My personal interpretation of all this is that nowadays boys aren't having to do anything others tell them to do, but neither are they doing anything much that they want to do. They have a definite tendency, in short, to be doing nothing. But this is not a long posting about what I think, it's a short posting about some of the things that my friend the army officer thinks about British education.

All I really want to add now is to say: Happy New Year. I haven't got around to analysing who is reading this blog, but the comments suggest that some people are, and I want to thank all of you. I repeat my intention to post something here every normal working day, and maybe things also on abnormal non-working days such as today is. Regular visitors can be pretty sure of new stuff if they visit every day or two.

I've just seen the latest Bond movie. Try as I might, I can see no educational angle on this whatsoever, other than to observe how much more amusing a male teenager of the army sort would find it than something like geography lessons. So I'm having fun, and I hope you are too.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:33 PM
Category: Boys will be boys
December 04, 2002
Sports gangs

I have already reported on some schemes on both sides of the Atlantic to bring rowdy and uncivilised boys into closer touch with the kind of good men they might become, rather than the other kind. Here is another such scheme. The US Football team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, has a scheme to reward "socially disadvantaged" youths with tickets to games, if they behave themselves better. This is the "Honor Rows Program".

In Britain there is a crisis of youthful male energy, caused by the decline of team sports at schools. School sports grounds are now being relentlessly sold off for other more immediately profitable uses, and as the schools diminish into mere exam-passing machines, or worse, it seems to me that other more successful institutions in our society could and should be taking up the educational slack.

In Britain the obvious candidates are the big soccer clubs. These enterprises have traditionally tended to concentrate on their one obsession, winning first team soccer games. But you have only to think of the names of some of the big continental European soccer teams –"Sporting" Lisbon, "Athletico" Madrid – to realise that it doesn't have to be like this. And think of the big soccer team based in the Italian city of Turin. It's simply called "Juventus", which presumably means "Youth", or something very like it. It's nick-name - "Juve" - is even the same as the American slang word for a juvenile correctional institution.

Is anyone aware of any of the big British Football clubs – Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and so on – doing anything along these lines? (My fellow Samizdata writer David Carr is a big Chelsea fan. Maybe he knows something about this.) Obviously all these clubs have their "youth teams", but by the nature of things, the majority of the boys involved in such efforts tend not to make it into big-time professional soccer. So it would make sense for the clubs, if their youth team set-ups are to be attractive to the promising boys they want to attract, to make sure that the disappointed ones get a soft landing into adulthood, rather than just a hideous disappointment-for-life.

As the schools retreat to their (literally in this case) core curriculum, other institutions that are doing better could and should expand into this gaping educational void.

For what else is a sports team if not a socially acceptable re-invention of the youthful gang? You want to get rid of bad gangs? Set up other gangs, which do all that the bad gangs do that's fun (basically have exciting battles with the other gangs) but which break rather fewer of the rules of adult society.

The idea that boys can somehow be persuaded to refrain entirely from being boys for the duration is, by comparison, very foolish.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:48 PM
Category: Boys will be boys
November 13, 2002
On not caring

Last night I watched the movie About A Boy on DVD, which stars Hugh Grant as Will, a lazy living-off-inherited-interest stay-at-home kind of guy, who spices up his solitary life with lots of entertainment toys instead of with people. "No man is an island" says his TV as the opening credits roll. Replies Will in voice-over: "… if I may say so, a complete load of bollocks … This is an island age." Can't think why it appealed to me.

For well-plotted but too complicated to explain reasons, Will finds himself befriended by Marcus, the son of a hippy-dippy suicidal single mum, who dresses like a CND demo and who not only loves Marcus a lot, but does things like say so out loud just as she's dropping him off at school. This turns Marcus' life at school into a living hell.

Much is made of the "role of the father" and the value of "male role models" in the raising of boys. This film (and the book by Nick Hornby on which it is based) explains something of what it is that a man can bring to the business of raising boys. Example is not the point, or not the only one. The great thing about Will is that he doesn't care. He cares about himself, not the boy. So when the boy turns up at Will's black leather, giant TV, tubular steel furniture bachelor pad and barges his way in, he finds an emotionally empty space within which to escape from the hell of school and the emotional minefield of life with mum. He can just chill out.

By the end of the story, Will has himself grown up a bit and is getting out more, which is also on my to-do list, but never mind that for now. My point here is that not caring is a very important thing you can often do for other people. If you don't care, you don't try to force their minds in certain directions, because you don't care what direction their minds go in. You don't force them to make rapid "progress", because you don't care whether they make progress or not. Consequently, they can make whatever progress they want, in whatever directions they want, and really get to learn things.

We in Britain have a very caring government just now, especially in matters educational.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:09 AM
Category: Boys will be boys
November 05, 2002
Boys Won't Be Girls

For all those who want a cheap and cheerful choice of a few of the day's education stories from the British "electronic print" media I recommend Home Educating House Dad. Michael Peach doesn't always have anything new to say each morning, his last posting having been put up last Wednesday. But every morning, on the left, under "UK Education News", there are new links to British education stories, a decent few of which actually come up when you click on them.

For me, the most interesting one today was this, from the electrified version of the Telegraph.

For some years now, a big theme of British educational commentary has been that school life for girls has been easier than school life for boys, because, basically, teachers have tended not to like boys, and "education" has tended to mean getting them to be girls for the duration. Not surprisingly, many boys who might have done a lot better have wilted or rebelled. But read this:

This year, the boys at Kings' have actually overtaken the girls: 82 per cent gained five top grades, compared with 79 per cent of girls. How has such a transformation come about?

"We have taken the 'laddish' culture of our boys and, instead of quashing it, we have harnessed it to good effect," says Ray Bradbury, the head.

"Boys get as much praise in assembly for their sporting achievements, for example, as do the girls for their gentler pursuits. Successful old boys are invited in to talk about the importance of doing well, and we create an atmosphere of encouragement for boys as well as girls.

"Writing snide, negative comments on boys' reports, which used to be a staff-room sport in some schools, is unacceptable here, because boys have feelings, too.

"Most importantly, we have identified the boys who are in danger of under-achieving and we teach them in single-sex groups in English, maths and French, using methods specially adapted for those who can be 'a bit of a handful'."

Ms Parsons, the head of French, is an expert practitioner of these methods. Once her boys are settled, they work on tasks in short bursts. In the lesson I watched, they were given French phrases and had to write and rehearse sketches, and then perform them to the class. All were involved, either acting or correcting each other's pronunciation, and there was no sign of self-consciousness.

Or, as they used to say before it became incorrect, Boys Will Be Boys. Now, saying this seems to be becoming correct again. In general, the notion of an inborn, genetically programmed, gender distinctive human nature is now reasserting itself. (See for example the most recent book of Steven Pinker. Here's a link to a recent interview with Pinker.)

Nevertheless, there remains something rather manipulative about all this. My educational ideal (and if I didn't have at least one of those I wouldn't be doing this now would I?) is for children not to be manipulated at all, and in the meantime to be manipulated a hell of a lot less. The danger of such changes in educational fashion as this one is that one annoying over-generalisation will merely be replaced by another perhaps more accurate one, but still an over-generalisation. Boys Should Be Girls favours one sort of boy, and Boys Will Be Boys might make life nastier for such a boy. Because, one of the most definite features of human nature is that it varies from individual to individual, and no one atmosphere will suit all individual pupils.

But, as manipulation goes, this sounds not so bad. (Ms. Parsons sounds like she won't soon be forgotten!) And good or bad, I hope you agree that it is at least something to think about.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:43 PM
Category: Boys will be boys