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Category Archive • Examinations and qualifications
October 29, 2004
Cheats from China

I don't really know what to say about this, other than that it is interesting:

Midland universities are being targeted by fraudsters who falsify application forms to get foreign students on to courses in return for cash.

At least seven overseas students have already been expelled so far this term in the region after their applications were found to claim they had qualifications they did not possess.

Nationally 1,000 students have been caught during 2004 using false addresses, names and faked qualifications to get into prestigious British universities – twice the normal rate, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

Yesterday, it was reported that an agent for Chinese students had claimed to have fixed places for hundreds of unqualified students over the past three years at universities including Birmingham.

Candidates were reported to be paying thousands of pounds to agents operating in China and Pakistan to cheat their way to a highly-prized UK university education.

Well, maybe there's this to say. How well would these cheats have done if they had been allowed to continue with their studies? How well do they do, if not caught? They sound rather highly motivated to me. Or would they have just tried (do they just try?) to make further educational progress with yet more payments?

The end of the article does supply an answer:

Warwick University described people who tried to falsify qualifications to get in "idiots".

I guess they meant "as" idiots there.

"There is a demand for British higher education around the world. It is one of the things we do well. In a sense it is the jewel in our crown," said Peter Dunn, head of communications.

"We occasionally get idiots who try to forge qualifications but 99 per cent of the time they are easy to spot."

But what if these fraudsters are only easy to spot if they are, you know, easy to spot? Is Warwick University behaving like those dumbos who say, with perfect confidence: "I can always spot a hairpiece."

It is hardly surprising that they've never yet spotted a fraudulent student that they couldn't spot.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:05 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsGlobalisation
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October 26, 2004
Ken says Mike Tomlinson has the intelligence of a small gnat

More about Mike Tomlinson, from a guy called Ken. He said something nice about something I wrote yesterday for Samizdata, and I followed him back to this.

This Ken does not sit on the fence, Tomlinsonwise:

What is it about education and the teaching profession that gives morons a long career path? Mike Tomlinson has always seemed to me to have the intelligence of a small gnat – I saw him absolutely taken apart by the Education Select Committee, and yet no-one picks up the fact that this may make him somewhat unsuitable for the commissioning of a report looking for the complete overhaul of secondary education as we know it. I admit, I have an in-built hatred of the man following the abysmal and utterly outrageous whitewash of the inquiry into A-Level marking in 2002. But for him to have become the head of Ofsted to me beggars belief – going far, far beyond the Peter principle. He must surely have been promoted three or four levels (at least!) above his level of competence.

His report into the overhaul of secondary education merely confirms this to me. Admittedly, there are some good ideas hidden within it – most notably, the realisation that good students can be fast-streamed and reach their potential more quickly than others can – but this is lost in a stream of egalitarian rhetoric of the worst kind. Unfortunately, none of the alternatives hit the point any more, despite the fact there is so much consensus regarding the problems facing our education system. Worse still, there is no constructive political opposition to prevent the adoption in some form of the recommendations of the report.

If you like that, read the other half.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:25 AM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
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October 19, 2004
Mike Tomlinson – and his Report

Daniel Johnson in today's Telegraph:

So the Tomlinson report, supposedly the greatest shake-up of secondary education since 1944, has been endorsed by the Government. In our household the news induced nothing but a sinking feeling of déjà vu. My wife's first response to Tomlinson was to think of our four children: "Guinea pigs again!"

Have they forgotten what happened when Keith Joseph replaced the O-level with an exam (the GCSE) which almost everybody could pass? Or how the A-level has been degraded into a muddle of modules and multiple choice?

Today, fewer than one in six school-leavers knows which king signed Magna Carta. Forty years of permanent revolution in our schools has produced the most examined but least educated generation in modern history.

Tomlinson is supposed to be about restoring confidence in our discredited examination system. The report actually does the opposite. Tony Blair insists it does not abolish the GCSE and AS-level. But it does, replacing them with "teacher assessment" of the pupil, who is only required to do an "extended project".

If there were any doubt that the replacement of formal exams by assessment has been an intellectual disaster, the curious case of Prince Harry's Eton art project ought to have dispelled it. For a former chief inspector of schools to be blind to the institutionalisation of cheating shows how deeply the rot has set in.

MikeTomlinson.jpgWhat school did Tomlinson go to, I wonder? And what university? (Are they now pleased with and proud of themselves?)

Times Online did a profile of him yesterday, by Jenny Booth, which will disappear soon, I guess, so here is all of it:

With a lifetime in education, first as a teacher and then as a schools inspector, Mike Tomlinson is seen in government circles as a safe pair of hands with a good record for dealing with tricky situations.

Born in 1942, and educated in Rotherham and Bournemouth, he studied chemistry at Durham University and taught in schools in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire for 12 years. He also spent a year as a liaison officer between schools and the petrochemical industry.

He joined Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools in 1978. In 1996, the year after he was appointed director of inspection, he headed the team that went in to run the troubled Ridings School in Halifax for a year, when it was named the worst school in England.

He also helped to restore the education system in Kuwait after the 1990 Gulf War, and to develop a schools inspection regime for China.

He was awarded a CBE in 1997, and in 2000 was made chief inspector after the sudden resignation of his boss, Chris Woodhead. After the bitter antagonism that had existed between schools and Mr Woodhead at the renamed Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), Mr Tomlinson was seen as the right man to pour oil on troubled waters.

He was not a caretaker leader however, criticising the Government over damaging teacher shortages.

He retired in April 2002, but rather than opt for the quiet life he became chairman of the trust running schools in Hackney, one of England's most problematic education services.

He had been there rather less than six months when Estelle Morris, the Education Secretary, called him in to sort out the mess over A-level grading and standards.

Miss Morris resigned not long afterwards, and it was her successor, Charles Clarke, who asked Mr Tomlinson to take charge of the review of 14-19 education, a much bigger political hot potato.

He was careful to build a broad consensus on his committee, which included representatives from schools, further education colleges, independent schools, employers, vocational trainers, universities, but it remains to be seen whether the far-reaching reforms he proposes will be acceptable to the public.

Interesting man, with an interesting life. But how are the mighty fallen.

This looks like a classic example of a self-reinforcing and collectively self-deceiving committee making a gigantic blunder than very few of them would, individually, have made.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:39 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
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Natalie thinks outside the box

Natalie Solent had an amazing new idea yesterday:

Betcha Prince Harry did get help on his coursework. Not so fast with the chopper, Mr Headsman! So does everybody, as Mr White of the Telegraph sagely observes. Not quite everybody, actually. Last year Jenny Sweetham-Klewlesse (18) of The Old Vicarage, Pootlington Parva, did a Social Studies project completely unaided. Interested reporters can contact Miss Sweetham-Klewlesse behind the counter of her local Little Chef.

It can't go on, you know. We need think outside the envelope and find a better way. Surely it is not beyond the bounds of human cunning to devise some sort of system which would actually make it difficult to cheat. Something like, um, gottit, getting all the A-Level candidates to do their coursework in school with no mummies and daddies allowed. No, that wouldn't work - what about the teachers? They have a stronger motive to cheat than anyone. Except the pupils, of course. I know! All the pupils would have to do the coursework the same day. All together in one room. And – and – and no talking to each other. Yes! It's a crazy idea but it might just work – so long as we took away their mobile phones.

Don't look at me like that. We'd give them back afterwards.

Okay, not the mobile phones. They'd have to put them under the desk.

Sorry. Sorry. I've calmed down now. I now see clearly that my idea was ill-judged, not to say intemperate. And contrary to human rights. My party leader has sent me to a local sixth-form college to apologise.

Last night I found myself asking Eamonn Butler of the Adam Smith Institute: why is there still no free market in exams, and why aren't exams consequently okay, like cars or cakes or soya sauce in bottles in the supermarket, instead of a national joke? You'd have to involve industry and a critical mass of the universities he said, and that's hard. But why is this not now happening?

Before I get the usual answer, to the effect that exams are already a "free market" ... exam suppliers may now be "independent", but the government still seems to be the sole or principle customer, with the private sector schools tagging meekly along behind. But why? Why cannot universities and businessmen decide for themselves which exam results they will take seriously, and which not? I'm told that many employers now have their own exams, so clearly lots of employers have already lost faith in the state-purchased exams. So, why don't they shop around?

If the answer is that the government enforces its purchasing preferences on everyone with the force of law, than that means that the exam business already is nationalised, in all but names.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:49 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
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October 18, 2004
David Wolfe is a great physics teacher – but is he "qualified"?

The Government makes a rule. A particular case shows the rule to be ridiculous, and the media get heavily involved. Contemptuous people assemble in crowds saying: rubbish. So, the Government suddenly invents a policy which says that the rule doesn't apply to this particular case after all.

DavidWolfe.jpgI'm talking about the case of Dr David Wolfe, an excellent physicist and a superb physics teacher, who, the Government said, because he hadn't passed his GCSE maths, wasn't "qualified" to be a teacher. There can be no exceptions. Curse rage, government is idiotic, media hubbub, David Miliband is a plonker, and hey … how about that? There can be an exception. It turns out there's a "fast track". Some government inspectors can sit in on his classes and declare him qualified.

Read the Telegraph here, or the Guardian here.

I read about this in the Sunday Times here, who end their report yesterday thus:

But this may yet be a story with a happy ending. After the flurry of media exposure last week Wolfe was summoned to the phone. On the other end was "a very nice man" at the Department for Education and Skills. He told him that an assessor from the University of Gloucester would soon come to the school to observe one of his lessons. If it was fine, hey presto, he would be a qualified teacher.

"It's a complete volte face by the government," says Dingle. "No other head has heard of this 'fast-track' route. Heads up and down the country are saying, 'I beg your pardon?'" Nonetheless, he adds, "This time next week I earnestly hope David Wolfe will be a qualified teacher. Hurrah!"

But the rules remain in place, and not many good but "unqualified" teachers will be as vigorous in challenging them as Wolfe and his many friends have been.

The obvious riposte to this is that there do have to be rules. Well, maybe, in this centralised, nationalised system that we now have, with London in charge of everything, well, then, London has to be in charge, to have rules, and to stick to them. In Brian-world, people just educate themselves as they wish, and get what help they want. The idea that the government could forbid people to learn from some particular individual that they want to learn from would be regarded as ludicrous.

I should have picked up on this story sooner, instead of just babbling on about America. Sorry about that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:55 AM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsScience
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October 11, 2004
Jo-Anne Nadler finds that she is better qualified than she had realised

I have been reading Jo-Anne Nadler's Too Nice to be a Tory, which is an autobiographical essay about the predicament of … well, it's obvious. Here is how she describes (pp. 91-92) that portentous moment when, fresh out of York University, she goes back to London and gets her first proper job.

JoAnneNadler.jpg'How would you win back the audience we've lost to Capital Radio?'

It was the clincher question in my third and final round of interviews for a job as a trainee producer with Radio 1. Resting on my answer was the prospect of a fairly swanky opening straight out of college. I was shifting nervously, feeling rather sweaty, considering my response. My interrogator was one of three facing me in a deliberately intimidating configuration beloved of the BBC. He went on, 'You know the type, the skilled working class around the outskirts of the M25, out every Friday night at the Epping Forest Country Club, drives a Cortina, furry dice in the back of the car, but it's always independent radio tuned in at the front. What are we going to do about it?'

'Play more Luther Vandross!'

It seemed the obvious answer. It was certainly true that Essex Man liked soul music, of which London's independent station Capital Radio played a lot, while Radio 1 was wall-to-wall Phil Collins, Eric Clapton and the Travelling Wilburys. While I had been a temporarily displaced Londoner myself it had always been a blessed relief to hit Elstree at the bottom of the A1 on the drive home from York. Here was the chance to tune out of Radio 1 and the dirge of ageing hippy rockers and into loud, brash 'dancey' Capital. It was the sign that I was home, in radio terms back in the land of the living. Unsurprisingly I did not add that observation in my response just as I had not played up my YC past when outlining my suitability for the job. Whatever the reality it hardly spelt sex, drugs and rock'n'roll.

I had applied for the job during my final term at university almost as a joke but, without trying, I had apparently obtained the necessary qualifications; an encyclopaedic knowledge of pop music, I had run the campus radio station, I was articulate, ambitious and female – which had marked me out among the applicants. And so, to my great surprise, I was in.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:29 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsRelevance
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September 18, 2004
If you do Edexcel GCSE maths you don't have to excel

I claim no expertise in the whole exams-are-getting-easier debate. I merely suspect, like lots of others, that they are. But this does sound seriously ridiculous:

Pupils were awarded A grades in one of Britain's most popular GCSE maths exams this summer despite having only achieved half marks.

Students needed to score just 45 per cent in two exams to achieve an A grade in an exam set by the Edexcel board. Combined with their coursework scores, this meant that just 51 per cent was needed overall.

The papers were sat by 80,000 pupils this summer and more than half got an A or A*. The figures were condemned as "ludicrous" by maths experts.

So, if you are concocting your CV, and you have GCSEs on it that are not Edexcel GCSEs, be sure to say so. On the other hand if they are Edexcels, keep quiet about it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:21 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
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June 16, 2004
All work and all play

It seems that my blogging duties here, and here, could be clashing.

A schoolgirl tennis player will have to juggle her debut appearance at Wimbledon with her A-level exams on the same day.

Katie O'Brien, 18, is hoping organisers at the tournament – which starts on Monday – will give her a late on-court slot for her match so that she can sit her French and Maths exams in the morning.

The teenager was shocked to find out she had won a wild card entry on Friday despite losing a play-off final in London a few days earlier.

I blame Wimbledon. Getting to play despite failing the entrance exam? A clear case of declining tennis standards.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:18 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsSport
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June 10, 2004
Now I'm even more depressed

It seems that cheating is getting easier.

But be warned. If you do it, they'll take your money and only fail you at the eleventh hour.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:36 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
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June 07, 2004
Exam stress

It's gratuitous picture time! I snapped it today, in London.

Here's the story:
ExamStress.jpg

Exam stress has become so serious that government health advisers are to issue guidelines to doctors on coping with severe cases.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) will set out the best way to treat teenagers suffering from depression triggered by exam pressures. GPs will be guided on whether to prescribe counselling, psychotherapy or anti-depressant drugs.

I find this extremely depressing. So do I need counselling, psychotherapy or anti-depressant drugs?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:57 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
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Cheating in China

Hello. It sounds as if they're having problems with exam cheating in China.

I always interpret announcements that they're going to jolly well do something about stopping whatever it is as the proof that whatever it is is happening but not necessarily that whatever it is will be stopped.

So this tells me something, but not what Vice Minister of Education Yan Guiren wants to tell me:

Vice Minister of Education Yuan Guiren on Saturday pledged that great efforts would be made to prevent any kinds of fraudulent practices in coming university entrance examination, which will be held from June 7 to 9.

Yuan said this year saw the largest number of university entrance examinees since the exam was resumed in 1977 after the 10-year-long "Cultural Revolution". All relevant departments must strengthen exam discipline and resolutely crack down on any forms of exam corruption.

He pledged that severe punishment will be imposed on three types of exam cheating, including finding scapegoat to attend exam, sending exam-related tips by telecommunication devices and group fraudulent practice in exam.

Chinglish, is that called? It takes a bit of decyphering, but I believe I managed.

"Nowadays, exam cheating means are modern and advanced. Once the examination papers are divulged in one place, it will soon spread widely. Therefore, examination paper must be carefully guarded," he continued.

So, Chinese students are at least getting the hang of all this modern and advanced gizmology then.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:58 PM
Category: ChinaExaminations and qualifications
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June 04, 2004
SATs pass the test

From Instapundit to something somewhere, to something else at that same somewhere … it's a common path. So I've just now gone from this to this (on account of having developed an interest in Intellectual Property issues – never mind why), and the I scrolled up to this.

It's is about SAT tests. I sense, on the basis of little evidence that I can point or link to, but just a general feeling, that in Britain, SAT tests are becoming more important.

Partly it's because SATs are such a big deal in America, and news from America now gets here faster and more voluminously than ever. Partly, it's because of the increasing muddle that is the British exam system. And partly, as Britain becomes more ethnically and culturally diverse, tests which hack their way past all that stuff and dig out inborn intelligence become more significant. And no doubt several other reasons I can't think of now.

Basically what she's saying is: SATs aren't perfect, but they work pretty well, despite energetic efforts to prove otherwise.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:01 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
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May 21, 2004
Macbeth doth murder education

This is very strange:

English teachers are demanding an apology over the "worst ever" Shakespeare question in a test sat by 630,000 pupils last week.

The 14-year-olds taking the compulsory exam on the Bard were asked in the paper on Macbeth to write as if they were agony aunts for a teenage magazine.

The question, in the paper devised by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, told the pupils: "In Macbeth, Banquo warns Macbeth about the witches' influence. You give advice in a magazine for young people.

"You receive this request: 'Please advise me. I have recently moved school and made some new friends. I like spending time with them but my form tutor thinks my work is suffering. What should I do? Sam.'

"Write your advice to be published in the magazine."

Bethan Marshall, a lecturer in English at King's College, London, said it was "the silliest question I have ever seen. It is a pointless, contrived link with the play which could be answered without any reference to it," she said.

Trevor Millum, of the National Association for the Teaching of English, asked: "What has this got to do with Shakespeare?"

I distinctly remember an exam at Essex University which was supposed to be about computer programming, which was actually a mere intelligence test. I'd done no computer programming work all year, but passed with flying colours.

Macbeth contains one of my favourite quotes of all, which I can imagine a lot of teachers liking, because it sums up their entire lives, or what they hope is their entire lives:

Thou shalt get kings though thou be none.

This is said by the Third Witch, to Banquo. The First Witch: "Lesser than Macbeth, and greater" – just before the quote above – is almost as good.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:25 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
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April 29, 2004
Group grief

Cecile duBois describes the grief of group rather than individual assessment.

I have a lab report due tomorrow. I should be happy that its a group project, and we share equally the load of work to do. But no - not in this situation.

Her problem is that the three others aren't doing their fair share, but the marks will be dished out as if they are.

I don't mind doing work - but when its four people's shares of work on my back working for the sake of not only my grade, but our grade, I do mind.

I recorded the data, typed everything out, printed everything out, stapled together as neatly as possible. But if science teacher is not pleased about a certain thing, if its not 'cute enough' or a number is missing in the data, your precious lab report will be torn in half in the trash.

Earlier, it was by sheer luck I wound up in groups with students who actually worked at least their share – and who actually knew what they were doing, math-wise.

I just hope I haven't lost my wits this time.

For the brutal truth is that …

… If I don't do the work, we all fail.

The lesser of two evils: allowing three idiots to keep me as their one-night homework slave than having us all fail. Yeah, I've got to pick my battles. At least they don't read this blog.

Or this one. [P]oindexter comments somewhat pompously (but he has a point):

it's important to learn teamwork and how to engage in collaborative projects - it's a given that others will be slackers and/or ill-suited for the tasks ... welcome to the real world! ... that's how adults spend most of their waking hours: either dodging their share of the burden, or being forced to overcompensate for others' shortcomings ... here's an opportunity for you to exercise true team-leadership and management skills, and learn how to get the job done - without whining, complaining, fault-finding, finger-pointing, etc. ... that's how you'll get to be the one who picks your own team! ...

But I reckon the way to learn teamwork is to join a real team, rather than a fake one put together in a classroom. This is why employers – in Britain anyway, but I bet it's the same in the USA – look for evidence of out of school activities of one kind or another.

I'm not sure exactly why things work so much less well with classroom teams than with teams elsewhere. Partly it is that the results of school work are entirely concentrated in the individuals to whom education is done. The results are not actually collective. Another reason may be that since group work is the exception in school rather than the rule, there isn't very much of it, and the rewards of shirking are liable to outweigh the punishments. As so often in this world, repeat business is the key, and with group work at school, there is less of that than there is in non-school world.

I like Cecile. I like her because when we met in London … I liked her. And I like her because when I said something nice about her, she put it permanently up at the top right hand side of her blog, which means that I am famous throughout the right wing teenage-o-sphere. So, because I like her, and because this blog needs pictures, here is a another picture of her I took in London:

cecile2.jpg

Technically this photo is all over the place, with red eye, and a blurry left side (as we look at it) of her face. But it gets her well, nevertheless.

The pictures on the wall? The owner of them is a good friend. He likes them.

UPDATE FRIDAY: And guess what. Without realising it, I posted all that on Cecile's fifteenth birthday. I must be psychic. Michael Jennings has another picture of Cecile at the same event.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:02 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
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April 26, 2004
Graduating without working won't get you very far

The Independent on the apparent overproduction of graduates:

At no time during his four-year French degree or in the three subsequent years teaching English in Japan did Paul Escott, 26, see himself working as a full-time cashier in a bookies. Paul came back to the United Kingdom last August, with a view to getting his first UK graduate job - something to match his qualifications and experience. What he found, however, was not what he was expecting.

"I never thought I'd be taking 50p bets from stoned Jamaicans," he says with a smile. "In some ways I feel like a victim of my degree." Nowadays, he says, degrees are a dime a dozen.

Escott graduated in 2000 with a French degree from the University of East Anglia (UEA), where he spent his time "treating everything as a joke". He had a great time at UEA, and says that university life was the "mutt's nuts". He says he never gave a second thought to career development. "I did any old degree I knew I could pass, without any regard for where it would lead. If I ever made my mind up about anything at university, it was that I wouldn't make my mind up," he says.

Paul is one of an increasing number of graduates who are finding that their time in higher education was worth very little when it comes to getting a job. Although he says his priorities are not financial, and that he is reluctant to spend his life on the career ladder, Paul admits that he is not now where he wants to be.

In a book published last month, Anthony Hesketh of Lancaster University and Phil Brown of Cardiff University explain why cases like Paul's are increasingly common. Their study, The Mismanagement of Talent - Employability and Jobs in the Knowledge Economy, found that the number of graduates being turned out by universities is far greater than the number of graduate jobs available.

So forget about getting a degree then, even if you can?

The authors call into question the traditional notion of a degree being a key to guaranteed career success, saying that university credentials, "do no more than permit entry into the competition for tough-entry jobs rather than entry into the winner's enclosure."

So, you still need a degree to get a top job, even though it only gets you a chance of a top job?

The crucial question is not: Does a degree guarantee you a top job? It doesn't. Not now, probably not ever. The crucial question is: Are some people more likely to get top jobs if they skip degrees and start work at eighteen, or for that matter fifteen, or twelve, or eight? If a degree is insufficient, but still totally necessary for a top job, then it still makes sense for a would-be high fligher to get one. Even that bloke in the betting office may later find that his degree pushes him ahead in the queue.

It may well be that from the point of view of the economy as a whole, "Britain" cranks out too many graduates. But that doesn't mean that individual Britons who bust their guts and their banks accounts to get degrees are necessarily behaving irrationally.

In my opinion, the crucial question for a non-degree inclined eighteen-year-old to ask is: Where is the economy expanding fastest? You are much more likely to get a top job in an industry that is exploding with new opportunities, and is hence not organised and respectable and something that regular graduates yet want to get into.

Still study, in other words, but study different stuff.

One thing's for sure. Idling your way through university, getting a silly dime-a-dozen degree, and then expecting a great career, immediately, as of right, is no longer an option - if indeed it ever was. A top career means that sooner or later you have to start, you know, working. And sooner is better.

I don't think that those authors are right to regard the view that degrees guarantee you a great career as "traditional". I think that what they say, and what I've added, is much more traditional. Degrees get you in the door, but once in there, you have to work and to work intelligently, which is likely to mean that you have got into the habit of working, and of working intelligently, and that you can prove it. And I think most people know this.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:55 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
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April 25, 2004
Oxford reintroduces entrance exams

Grade inflation. Is it really happening? Hard and fast facts are hard to come by. But here is a hard fact not to say a fast fact. Oxford University is to reintroduce its own entrance tests, for English and history.

I havn't been very fast myself with this fact. I first heard about this from this quite recent Daily Telegraph piece, but according to this Guardian report, the announcement was made over a month ago. But some announcements are noteworthy enough to be worth noting even if you do it very slowly.

The point is that a grade A in A level no longer makes enough of a distinction between the best and the rest. Only if getting an A became harder could Oxford use A levels pick the brightest and best.

This still doesn't prove beyond doubt that grade inflation has been happening. The other explanation is that ultra-clever would-be Oxford students are now a lot more numerous than they used to be. Which could well be, I suppose.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:53 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
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April 22, 2004
Alan Little on yoga teaching qualifications

I earlier alluded to Alan Little's intention to write about how yoga (his particular brand being ashtanga vinyasa yoga) is taught, and how the teachers of it qualify. He has now done this, and says that there will be more to come.

After describing the bare bones of the system, Alan says this:

Some people object to the system for various reasons. One is that it absolutely requires attendance in Mysore for substantial periods and so is too much commitment in time and/or money for some people. My view on that is: tough. I wouldn’t want to be taught yoga by somebody who wasn’t dedicated and serious; willingness to go to India for several spells of several months and pay substantial tuition fees is one pretty good way of demonstrating dedication and seriousness.

Quite so. Yet another case of education as peacock feathers. By which I do not mean frivolous and pointless rubbish, I mean clear evidence of seriousness as proved by willingness to sacrifice time, money and convenience. It's a principle which explains a great deal in the world of education, don't you think?

As for the actual yoga aspect of it all, my comments would be pretty much worthless. If that's what you want, read Alan himself.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:53 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsIndia
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April 15, 2004
Help wanted by a teacher moving to France

Someone called Kerry has just left a comment on this posting, thus:

Please Help! I have been teaching primary age children now for 14 years and still love my job! I am now a non class-based Special Educational Needs Coordinator and am BEd [hons] trained. My family and I are giving serious consideration to moving to France but I'm told I will be unable to teach as my degree will mean nothing, what can I do? If we were to go we hope to be fluent in French on departure, we cannot speak French as of yet! Also are there English schools there where I could teach? I would be grateful for any help you could offer . Thank you.

I can't help, but can anyone else? Comments will I'm sure be gratefully received.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:58 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[1] [0]
March 27, 2004
China boys and girls

I've been reading the English version of China's 'People's' Daily. See also: China refutes US censure on human rights, and the sneer quotes to describe Taiwan 'election', which is rich coming from them, and which is why I have sneer quoted the 'People's' bit in 'People's' Daily by way of retaliation.

Anyway, according to this story, the Chinese are working their kids hard. Mere school is only the beginning of the story.

Two tough times begin when regular school ends on Friday afternoon for Xiao Di, a grade-two pupil in a primary school in Beijing's Dongcheng District.

Here is her schedule:

Sightreading and music theory on Friday evening.

Math and English on Saturday morning.

Piano on Saturday afternoon.

Dance on Sunday afternoon.

Sunday morning free? No! It is reserved for homework assigned by her teachers at her regular school.

What is all this frenetic activity in aid of? Have the children, or rather, their parents, got a problem?

Yes. Why all this frenetic activity?

"It all boils down to one word – competition,'' says Hong Chengwen, a pedagogy specialist at Beijing Normal University.

All this, especially the math and English, has something to do with preparing for junior high school in the immediate future.

But junior high is not the ultimate goal, nor is senior high, though both are vitally important stepping stones in the children's long road to getting established in a successful career.

It is university entrance, though still a long way away, that is behind all this week-end fuss today.

"A high score in the college entrance examination makes all the difference between the success and failure for a student. At least, a significant portion of the students – and their parents – think so; in spite of the fact that we educators and the educational authorities repeatedly trumpet the value of pluralistic approaches to success,'' Hong says.

The college entrance examination is a one-shot deal. You make it, you win. You don't, you lose – with not much chance of a second chance, says Hong of the harsh reality the students must face.

But do art and music have anything to do with university enrolment? Yes, they do. Universities are being given more and more power over who they may take in as students, and many of these schools are eager to recruit artistically accomplished or athletically gifted students to help boost their image at music, art and sports events organized among universities. These "special-skill students,'' as they are referred to, therefore have a better chance of getting into prestigious universities, because their artistic or athletic skills can count as part of their entrance-exam scores.

"Universities are being given more and more power over who they may take in as students …" That's an interesting little titbit, isn't it?

But, earlier in the game, some "key" junior high schools also pick for enrolment the "special-skill'' pupils and those who excel in the "killer'' math and English courses, from the primary schools.

And as if all that isn't enough …

Beyond the competition factor, many dads and mums want their children to develop in an all-around way. This helps explain why so many kids are studying dance, singing, piano, painting and so on, even though it is obvious to all that only a very small number of the children have any chance of becoming professional artists or musicians.

So, ferocious competition to get into university, and they have to be "all-rounders".

My guess would be that all this is approximately true. And isn't it interesting that this is now how the rulers of China now want the world to see them?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:35 AM
Category: ChinaExaminations and qualifications
[1] [0]
March 26, 2004
Antoine Clarke takes some more exams

A Brian's Friday is drawing to a close, and my speaker, Antoine Clarke, who was, as always, most eloquent, is rambling to me about education while he makes himself a cup of tea.

antoine.jpgAntoine tells me that he has just been visiting the Friends Reunited website, and they have ancient tests up there which you can take. Old 11+ exams, and GCSEs, but not O or A levels.

Antoine tried all the papers they had. The 11+ paper dated from the late 1940s. The GCSE paper was about 1990. The subjects, for 11+ were: verbal reasoning, maths, and science; and for GCSE they were: maths, physics and biology.

His worst score was verbal reasoning for the 11+, and his worst score in the GCSE was 80 per cent, which was in maths. Antoine is bi-lingual in English and French and has taken numerous exams in French as well as in English, and he says he has never gained a "pass" score in a French maths exam.

Looking at the standard of the exams generally, he thought that the GCSE would have been tough for his year at school when he was ten, but that most of his mates would have passed at any time after that.

His conclusion is that the modern English GCSE exam is primary school standard for the 1970s, and doesn't compare at all with the 1940s 11+.

In short, dumbing down is no myth.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:55 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsHistory
[0] [0]
March 23, 2004
This is why you have exams

Frank Furedi in the Telegraph, on cheating at university:

Last week, I received a letter from a young colleague working in a university in the North East. She had recently examined 48 third-year undergraduate essays and found that at least 15 of them were plagiarised.

When she raised the matter with her senior colleagues, she was instructed to treat the essays as "poor work" and mark them down. But she was also warned not to take any steps that would lead to disciplinary action against the cheating students because that would be a "messy business".

Plagiarism is indeed "messy". Among undergraduates, the practice usually involves copying someone else's work and presenting it as one's own.

Acknowledging a source, even of just a paragraph, is part of an ethos of intellectual honesty that academia must take for granted. That is why in previous times, immediate expulsion or, at the minimum, failure in a course were seen as an appropriate response to plagiarism.

At the root of this tendency is surely the practice of asking people how well they are doing, and believing their answer no matter what. (This is one of the things I here mean by the word "Sovietisation".) In this case, "continuous assessment", by the teacher who is doing the teaching, amounts to self-assessment, and is an invitation to the teacher to help his pupils cheat, instead of to stamp it out.

This is one of the big reasons why you have exams. It's a lot harder to cheat during an exam. If exams are the key measurement of success for each student, then they will also be the key measurement of the success of a teacher, and then the teacher won't want to cheat. Cheating would merely be self-deception on his part, the postponement of the bad news and the failure to correct it, as well as deception of the pupil of course.

I think exams are well worth taking. (Employers certainly seem to think so.) In addition to being semi-objective, they also measure the ability of the exam victim to handle information under conditions of high stress, a most important ability in the modern world. Do you forget it all a month later? So what? That's what happens to most information you handle when you are a working adult. Life would be unliveable if we remembered everything we ever "learned". (I have said this before here. But this is not a problem, because this is true enough to be worth repeating.)

A friend recently complained to me that when she was at school she learned lots of stuff, but now can't remember any of it at all (in fact she forgot it all immediately), and this now angered her. Why didn't I learn something worth learning, she now asks, that I wanted to learn? Good point, and she is now busy learning things she really does want to learn. Meanwhile, I think she almost certainly did learn more than she now realises.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:27 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsSovietisation
[5] [3]
March 09, 2004
The Alien Landscape Weblog on how to nurture "teenagers" differently

My warmest thanks to Alan Little for emailing me about a posting on the Alien Landscape Weblog called On the evils of easy grading.

It's about the economics of education. Education as currently organised is a gigantic waste of juvenile energy. Teenagers - I would say: by definition (this is what a "teenager" is) – sit around doing extraordinarily little, and the truly scandalous bit is that the cleverer they are, the truer this often is. Result, they behave like "teenagers".

Key paragraphs:

But, you say, we're talking about teenagers here. Teenagers lack judgement and maturity, and if you let them out without a keeper, who knows what they'll do?

Teenagers behave that way today, of course. But that's not because that's all they're capable of. Remember the old Soviet saying "As long as they pretend to pay us, we'll pretend to work"? Teenagers, like their older counterparts, rarely put forth their best effort unless they have a reason. Since diligence and maturity don't shorten their sentences, and immaturity and laziness don't get them into real trouble or lower their standard of living, it's not surprising that they're not really trying. There's no biological reason that they're incapable of being productive, useful adult citizens, it's just that there's no payoff for them. If they've got marketable skills and their own place, property, and liberty that they can improve through hard work, common sense, and ingenuity or lose through laziness, impulsiveness, or viciousness, they'll be just as inclined as anyone else to straighten up and fly right. It's clear that they're not pushing themselves to their limits, so I don't see any reason to believe anyone's assertions about just what their limits are based on observations of today's teenagers.

I have the feeling that the claim that smart kids do less work may be false, in lots of cases if clearly not in all. Smart kids generally have smart parents, and smart parents often "clean up" those confused signals by attaching rewards to each item of educational progress, and punishments to educational torpor or general "teenager"-ness. (Remember the girl who got a Cadillac, just for doing well at school?)

Nevertheless, the point about the non-biological-ness of teenager-ness is surely right. I did a sociology degree, and I actually learned quite a lot from doing it. The main thing I learned is that what my sociology teachers called "society" or "social structure" - and what I, under the influence of libertarian writers and pamphleteers and economists was starting to think of more as an "incentive structure" (although not yet with those sort of exact words) - matters.

One moment in 1945, all Germans adult males are fighting you and must be treated with extreme suspicion. Then something big happens in the big wide world out there ("Germany" surrenders in the war) and immediately all German adult males start to behave entirely differently. All of them. Society. (And in this case "history".) Explanations of previous, hostile German behaviour based on the immutability of the German version of human nature simply must be wrong. They are certainly woefully insufficient. Biology, that is to say, is not a satisfactory explanation of what is happening, even if it does have some bearing.

So yes, teenagers must have the energy to be a nuisance and the psychological energy to defy what passes for authority in their lives. But whether they behave like "teenagers" or not is a function of the society they find themselves in. Hormone theories of teenager-ness are excuses used by people who are presiding over unsatisfactory social arrangements, blaming the victims of these arrangements instead of changing the arrangements. It's the same with the theory that slaves (i.e. black people) are inherently slavelike. Or, many home-edders and home-ed supporters like me would add, the theory that children are inherently childlike.

I realise that I have a problem with biological and sociological/economic theories. I believe strongly in both. (Does this make me rather rare, apart from the general public I mean?) Young humans do have a definite nature, which is different from puppy nature or kitten nature or junior crab nature. But how that nature asserts itself is radically different depending on the social/economic influences that impinge upon it. Nature and nurture.

I could elaborate, but that's more than enough profundity for one post.

FINAL final point: I have just been wrestling with how to categorise this posting. I picked three from my list that seemed particularly pertinent, but could have picked at least half a dozen more. This shows, I think, how much the Alien Landscape man and I are thinking along similar lines, not neccesarily answering all questions the same way, but wrestling with lots of the same questions. So thank you again Alan.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:01 PM
Category: Economics of education Examinations and qualificationsParents and childrenSovietisation
[1] [0]
March 02, 2004
New Welsh Baccalaureate

I wonder if this is a great as Eryl Crump of the Daily Post (whoever he/she is and whatever that is) thinks it is:

A NEW and unique Welsh qualification is exciting educationalists and business leaders, Education Minister Jane Davidson claimed yesterday.

The Assembly's education supremo said the new Welsh Baccalaureate had been approved by university authorities and gained the support of the CBI.

She told the Daily Post: "The Welsh Bac is innovative. It's a new qualification developed by the Welsh Joint Education Committee and the Welsh Assembly Government. The Welsh Bac is distinctive, modern and proudly Welsh."

It feels like someone believes in it. On the other hand, Jane Davidson is a politician and it could all be hype and nonsense.

Read on, and the central idea simply seems to be that children need to be eased into productive work and prepared for prodiuctive work, rather than just taught nothing about productive work for a decade and then chucked into the dole queues, where they have to work it all out for themselves. Reading between the lines, as you generally have to do with newspaper education stories, it would appear that the children pick up marks for things like getting to work on time and being polite instead of neanderthal, having had a wash beforehand, and for being able to cooperate.

That last point is interesting. The traditional school doesn't really teach cooperation. It teachers individual intellectual skill. It trains individual minds.

But, on the other hand, maybe what employers want is precisely that: trained minds. They can teach all that stuff about punctuality, politeness, washing, etc., but only if it's worth it – if the person they are teaching the basic boring stuff to is worth bothering with. After all, if someone is smart, and can read, write and add up, it isn't hard for him to realise the importance of such stuff. All he has to do is something he may not have been doing at his school, which is look at the world through the eyes of those around him, rather than just through his own eyes.

Even so, I found the report interesting. Is devolution starting to work, I wonder? Even if it only unleashes a little healthy competition with English education, it might do some real good.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:05 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[1] [0]
January 07, 2004
Another redirect

Once again, a piece that I at first wrote, about this, for here, has ended up there. And this time the version there was actually posted here, before I realised. Ah, that old Samizdata hit rate!

UPDATE: Not feeling well. so no more today.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:38 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[0] [0]
January 06, 2004
"Quality assurance" in South Africa

This sounds familiar, doesn't it?

The Department of Education and Umalusi, the independent body that certifies and ensures the quality of matriculation examinations, today hit back at critics who lament about the quality of this year's matric results.

Both Umalusi and the Department of Education contended that the improvements in the matric pass rate signified a "first step to quality" education.

Director-General for the department of education Thami Mseleku said the criticism by some academics, media and commentators alleging that pupils' marks were inflated and question papers simplified were baseless.

Mr Mseleku said such negative comments displayed a lack of knowledge about the processes of quality assurance and the job done by Umalusi.

And it also sounds bad. "First step to quality" sounds really bad. They're not talking: education better. They're talking more like: educational collapse now happening at a decreasing rate. I mean, "first step"? That could mean anything. So I assume the worst.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:16 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[2] [0]
December 04, 2003
The ignorance of Winston Churchill exposed: "Why, he's last of all!"

More from My Early Life:

I had scarcely passed my twelfth birthday when I entered the inhospitable regions of examinations, through which for the next seven years I was destined to journey. These examinations were a great trial to me. The subjects which were dearest to the examiners were almost invariably those I fancied least. I would have liked to have been examined in history, poetry and writing essays. The examiners, on the other hand, were partial to Latin and mathematics. And their will prevailed. Moreover, the questions which they asked on both these subjects were almost invariably those to which I was unable to suggest a satisfactory answer. I should have liked to be asked to say what I knew. They always tried to ask what I did not know. When I would have willingly displayed my knowledge, they sought to expose my ignorance. This sort of treatment had only one result: I did not do well in examinations.

This was especially true of my Entrance Examination to Harrow. The Headmaster, Mr. Welldon, however, took a broad-minded view of my Latin prose: he showed discernment in judging my general ability. This was the more remarkable, because I was found unable to answer a single question in the Latin paper. I wrote my name at the top of the page. I wrote down the number of the question " I." After much reflection I put a bracket round it thus "(I)." But thereafter I could not think of anything connected with it that was either relevant or true. Incidentally there arrived from nowhere in particular a blot and several smudges. I gazed for two whole hours at this sad spectacle : and then merciful ushers collected my piece of foolscap with all the others and carried it up to the Headmaster's table. It was from these slender indications of scholarship that Mr. Welldon drew the conclusion that I was worthy to pass into Harrow. It is very much to his credit. It showed that he was a man capable of looking beneath the surface of things: a man not dependent upon paper manifestations. I have always had the greatest regard for him.

In consequence of his decision, I was in due course placed in the third, or lowest, division of the Fourth, or bottom, Form. The names of the new boys were printed in die School List in alphabetical order; and as my correct name, Spencer-Churchill, began with an "S," I gained no more advantage from the alphabet than from the wider sphere of letters. I was in fact only two from the bottom of the whole school; and these two, I regret to say, disappeared almost immediately through illness or some other cause.

The Harrow custom of calling the roll is different from that of Eton. At Eton the boys stand in a cluster and lift their hats when their names are called. At Harrow they file past a Master in the schoolyard and answer one by one. My position was therefore revealed in its somewhat invidious humility. It was the year 1887. Lord Randolph Churchill had only just resigned his position as Leader of the House of Commons and Chancellor of the Exchequer, and he still towered in the forefront of politics. In consequence large numbers of visitors of both sexes used to wait on the school steps, in order to see me march by; and I frequently heard the irreverent comment, "Why, he's last of all!"

So, Young Winston did well only when he was answering the question: Who's your dad?

To be more serious about it, he was a highly visible bottom of the school pecking order, not a pleasing combination of experiences. He was the worst, and he had nowhere to hide. In his aristocratic way, Churchill had quite a tough time of it, and he certainly acquired a grasp of what it felt like to be at the bottom, as well as the top, of the social heap.

In a deep sense, deeper than mere Latin and Greek and Maths, his was one hell of an education.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:04 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[1] [0]
October 06, 2003
No it isn't and no it hasn't

Last Wednesday, I think it was, maybe Thursday, the government announced the biggest shake-up in secondary education since the last biggest shake-up:

The biggest shake-up in secondary education for 60 years was announced yesterday by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Yes, what I said, sixty years. Apparently there are going to be some different exams.

So how did I miss this? Well, I didn't. I read about it at CrozierVision, where I also read this:

No, it isn't; no, it hasn't. I haven't even read the story. Why not? Because I know it's garbage. How many times have we heard the words "shake-up" and "biggest" in the same sentence over the past 6 years? Zillions, I should think. It never is. It's just another PR puff to cover up the fact that the government hasn't the slightest idea what it is doing. And in the Telegraph of all things. Wake up guys!

Which sounded more like the real story to me. So I thought, this probably isn't that important, so that's why it's taken me so long to pass it on.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:53 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[0] [0]
September 19, 2003
Work Experience, Real Life, etc.

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

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

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

Time for just a little copying and pasting:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:31 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsParents and childrenRelevance
[4] [0]
September 15, 2003
Same marks – different grades

More bad press for GCSEs:

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

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:29 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[0] [0]
September 14, 2003
"Forced to lower the pass mark"

Why am I not surprised?

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

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

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:02 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[4] [0]
August 29, 2003
The teachers were teaching to the test but they guessed wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:35 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[0] [0]
August 23, 2003
Rising standards?

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

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

Maybe so.

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

More examination angst.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:34 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[1] [0]
August 11, 2003
Tories fail exam test

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:53 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[0] [0]
July 29, 2003
Exams and exam comments – here and at Samizdata

If you write for a big blog and you also run a small specialist blog like this one, here's one of the things you do. You put a story up on your small blog. You get a comment on it. You then rehash that comment into a posting on the big blog. And then you recycle any comments you get there back to the small blog. And you keep on doing that until you are the Ruler of the Universe.

So, this time around, the starting point was this posting here about the collapsing British exam system, which Emma commented upon, which I then put up at Samizdata, and which Guy Herbert then commented upon there, thus:

I'm surprised you don't recall that once upon a time – as little as 20 years ago – we did have a market-like system for qualifications for GCEs O-levels, and A-levels (and the forgotton "S-levels" for those for whom A-levels were not demanding enough). The various exam boards were independent, and schools would choose between them, depending on the sort of syllabus they wanted to pursue. The government didn't set the syllabus. The exams were kept honest by competition, because the universities and other consumers of the qualified could discount a board's qualifications if it got too lax.

My reading of the QCA's railway-style approach is that it's a Parkinsonian scheme to increase its own size and influence, which will be supported and encouraged by the government as a means to tighter central control. Compare the invention of the Strategic Rail Authority. While there are still lots of exam boards--even as currently constituted--it wouldn't be a vast adminstrative task just to abolish the QCA and the national currriculum and let nature set the course.

All of which is far too well informed and intelligent not to pass on to you lot, just in case you don't bother with Samizdata. (I certainly hope that this is true of some of you. I try to put at least some stuff here that is of interest to people with very different political prejudices to mine.)

I did sort of know what Guy says about how exams used to be, but there's sort of knowing and really knowing. I mean, did the Ministry of Education in those days have no influence on the exam choices made by State Schools? I don't know. But Guy seems fairly sure that they didn't.

That's a problem I've always had with learning things. I've never been happy about just taking one person's word for it. I need to get the story from several different and preferably unrelated directions. Which I think is an attitude that has educational implications.

One thing I think it means is that with teaching, as with the political persuading which is what I have spent a lot of my life doing, you have to be content to say your piece to your "pupils", and then let them make of it what they want to. Which might very well include nothing.

And exams, of course, don't fit very well with that attitude.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:41 AM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[5] [0]
July 26, 2003
A proposed unfree market in exams

Very few national education stories interest me as much as perhaps they should, given the subject matter of this blog, but this one looks interesting:

Any organisation could be allowed to set itself up as an exam board under radical proposals to create a free market in qualifications currently being considered by the government's testing watchdog.

A free market in exams is something I've been arguing for here.

Senior officials at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) are discussing plans to deregulate the market in GCSE and A-level exams to provide greater choice and competition for schools.

This is the killer paragaph, which tells you that actually this is most definitely not going to be a free market in exams. It is going to be a "market" in who can best (in who's eyes?) administer the exams that the government has already decided upon. A true free market would mean the examining enterprises examining any darn thing they chose to examine, and people being allowed to pick and choose among all the different offered exams.

Such a move would reverse the recent trend towards fewer exam boards - the three main boards in England were formed out of the amalgamation of more than 20 since the 1970s.

Hm. Markets don't necessarily result in lots of different enterprises. Often they result in a few huge ones. This is because in many markets people especially value standardisation. Think PC compability in the personal computer market.

It would also accelerate the controversial trend for commercial companies to become increasingly involved in running public exams, which recently saw Edexcel, a charity, taken over by the media giant Pearson.

Running "public" exams? And as we've already see above, "public" means the exams that have already been decided on by the government.

The plans were proposed by Sir Anthony Greener, the QCA chairman, a City grandee who is also deputy chairman of BT. He proposed a market similar to that in the energy industry, where some companies are primarily "upstream" generators of gas or electricity, while others sell the product to consumers "downstream".

Doesn't sound much like a "free" market to me, more like an administered one.

Under his plans, exam boards' current responsibilities would be split between different bodies. Tasks from writing the syllabus to marking papers and setting grade boundaries would be handled by separate organisations.

Split? Separate organisations? Sounds rather like what's happened to the railways. I also write for Transport Blog, which has dug deep into that, and if there is one idea that seems to unite us all over there, whatever political direction we come at the argument from, it is that "fragmentation" has been a disaster. This sounds like a plan to "fragment" the exam industry, as opposed to actually creating a free market. Okay, maybe fragmentation won't be such a disaster here, but it remains one of the big myths that in order to introduce capitalism, competition, etc. you have to smash everything to bits.

Any organisation would be able to set itself up as an exam board as long as it was accredited by the QCA and awarded a licence to run academic exams.

See what I mean about administered.

Opponents of private sector involvement in state education are likely to oppose the proposals.

You don't say.

A spokesman for the QCA stressed that the plan was one of several options under discussion, but he said that it was "unlikely" the number of awarding bodies would increase.

So, one of the opponents then.

England's two other exam boards, the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance and Oxford and Cambridge and RSA currently remain as charities.

Not quite sure what the significance of that is. Either it just happened to be the end of the story or something is being implied about how the existing boards might have their charitable status removed, or maybe that their charitable status is causing problems, or that making them businesses would make them even worse, or something.

Anyway, as to the story as a whole, the first paragraph of it is inaccurate. The headline is much better:

Exam boards could be subject to market forces.

That's right. And tell me an existing civil servant or other public servant who is not now subject to market forces. Civil servants get paid, and they are bombarded with a stream of instructions from the government about what they must do. That's the plan for these new exam "enterprises".

The problem with this new administered market is that, being collective public officials rather than true free market enterprises, these exam boards will be dominated by the short term matter of keeping their licenses, rather than the long term matter of offering and sustaining good exams, worth taking and worth having passed. And short-termism could result in dumbing down under this new regime, just as it does now. Everything depends on the licensing body. They will be the people in charge, not the new exam enterprises.

This will not, I repeat, be a true free market.

The one aspect of the situation which might just tantalise me into hoping for the best rather than simply assuming the worst, is that some of the suppliers of examination services might be very big. If the supplier is big, then that supplier might be supplying such services to a number of governments around the world, rather than just the one, and therefore might be said to have some kind of reputation to preserve. That would at least nudge the big suppliers away from the worst sorts of short-termism.

But "might" is the operative word there. Plenty of Britain's rail franchisees do lots of other business, and they don't seem to have managed very well. They just blame their one customer, the government, for the mess, and who's to say they're wrong?

A real market would be if individual teachers, parents, children and future employers could choose which exams to take, encourage, and pay attention to, unmolested by the government, which regards education as beneath its attention. We're a bit of a way from that, I think.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:11 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsFree market reforms
[1] [1]
July 21, 2003
How useful are exams?

Alice Bachini on exams:

I'm so glad I'm not a teacher anymore

Partly because you have to deal with things like exam grades being completely stupid and meaningless. How does a teacher spend all year encouraging kids to take something seriously, only so that at the end of the year, the whole thing ends up becoming a farce?

Well, in my view, almost all school exams are pretty farcical. They don't help children learn, and there's no real value whatever in examining them on things unless they need clearly to demonstrate some kind of commitment to and ability in some subject in order for universities to have confidence in accepting them on courses, say.

If people are going to have examinations, they should organise them properly, with some kind of decent academic standards. At least then people know where they stand. Otherwise, they definitely ought to forget the whole thing.

I'm not so sure. Proving commitment is right, but it's not just proving it to universities.

In Brian-world, children decide for themselves whether they take exams or not, but if they want my advice I'll tell them that exams surely prove something important besides the mere matter of whether they have merely learned the contents of the syllabus. They prove, it seems to me, the ability to handle information under pressure, on the one big occasion when it really matters. This is surely an immensely important skill, and arguably the key skill of working in a modern information-based economy.

It is said that, a few years later, and maybe even a few weeks later, you will have forgotten everything you "learned" for those exams you took. So what? Most of us forget the facts around whatever task we are performing, after we have performed it.

I will have forgotten most of the mere facts surrounding this post pretty soon, and probably in a matter of a few days. That's not the point. The point is: Am I using the knowledge I now have to make a worthwhile point, to you, now? If I am, then mission accomplished, and if I've forgotten all about it in a week, that won't matter. The posting will still be here, in the archives, even if I have to think hard to remember anything about it myself.

What exams test is the habit of switching on one's concentration, onto what matters, when it matters. And since concentration can't be permanently switched on, exams also test the ability to switch off one's concentration at the right times, and thereby to make best possible use of it.

This is why employers take exam results seriously, and why they are surely right to do this.

It is also surely why they are not that bothered about the mere content of the syllabuses being examined. Just so long as it's something, and just so long as the brains of the examinees were really tested.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:58 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
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July 18, 2003
"Educational neglect" in New York

Jim of Jim's Journal did a piece that I featured here, about the glory of the American Melting Pot. Today, however, he emailed about a less happy American circumstance:

Brian,

Here's a situation you might be interested in mentioning in your Education Blog:

A 15 year-old girl in New York City has successfully completed 71 credits at two public community colleges in New York City. A full-time college student would normally complete between sixty and seventy credits during two years of study. (Community colleges in the U.S. typically offer Associate of Arts or Associate of Science degrees after that amount of study; for some students that is the ompletion of their college career but many then go on to complete a B.A. or B.S. degree at a full college or niversity. I'm not sure if there is a British equivalent or not.) She earned a 3.84 cumulative average while doing this; that is pretty close to being a straight A average.

Recently the girl and her parents sued in an attempt for her to receive a degree. In the U.S. and Canada there is something called a G.E.D. (General Equivalency Diploma). It was intended for people who dropped out of high school but then later in life needed a high school diploma, either because of employment requirements or in order to enroll in higher education. Apparently the community colleges allowed anyone to take courses, but high school graduation (or a GED) was a requirement for official admission to a degree program. New York State said she had to be at least 17 years old to take the tests leading to a GED. Thus, a suit to force New York to let her get a GED so she could get her associate's degree and enroll in a bachelor's degree program.

The judge ruled against them and was harshly critical of her father for allowing her to take college courses instead of attending high school. He also noted that it would have been legal for him to have her be a Home Schooled student, but allowing her to attend college was illegal.

Not only that, but now New York City's child protective services division has launched an investigation and is threatening her father with prosecution for "educational neglect" for allowing her to skip high school. This from a city with a notoriously poor public school system. Pregnant 15-year-old drug addicts are normal but allowing bright children to attend college is a horror that must be stamped out at once. The idiocy of the education bureaucracy and the Big Nanny social enforcement bureaucracy is truly beyond belief.

More in the Daily News and the New York Post.

Regards,

Jim

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:19 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
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June 27, 2003
Kealey on German technical education

This is interesting. It's from Terence Kealey's book, The Economic Laws of Scientific Research.

Curiously, these inadequacies in the much-vaunted German vocational training colleges or Berufsschulen persist to this day. In 1991, a team of British school inspectors reported that the Berufsschulen were manifestly inferior to their British counterparts, the colleges of further education. Amongst their inadequacies, most Berufsschulen (i) lacked central libraries, (ii) they were overcrowded and lacked study space, (iii) a much lower proportion of German staff had recent industrial experience compared with British staff, (iv) there was little project work, and (v) general courses were not sufficiently challenging. The British school inspectors found that the reason the Berufsschulen have, for over a century, been supposed to be so excellent, is that they award the qualification of Master Craftsman, for which there is no equivalent in Britain. This qualification carries high status in a nation obsessed with qualifications, but the actual products of the Berufsschulen are in practice no better than their British equivalents with their modest diplomas [Aspects of Vocational Education and Training in the Federal Republic of Gemany (London : Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1991)].

And that's just a footnote (on page 116 of my Macmillan paperback, 1996). I will definitely be reading this book properly. It's near the top of my book list.

Kealey's thesis in this part of the book is that explaining Britain's economic decline by talking about the supposed excellence of German education is superfluous, because, Britain having got out ahead economically, and the others having then followed, Britain's relative economic decline was a mathematical inevitability.

The argument of the book as a whole is that economic advance does not depend on government funding for scientific research, any more than does science itself.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:36 AM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[0] [1]
June 10, 2003
Crowding out in the exam industry

Here's an article in today's Telegraph by Elizabeth Rickards:

English is the backbone of our education. Without a good understanding of the language and an ability to write it formally, progress in other subjects is held back. A command of the subject is essential not just for academic success: it is the key skill in the workplace.

How ironic, then, that English is in decline in this country whilst millions abroad study it because they fully understand its value.

Good intentions, endless initiatives, literacy hours, targets and league tables have still to make any real impact on the standard of school-leavers' written English. Employers and university lecturers alike bemoan the fact that young people cannot be relied on to spell, punctuate or write clearly. Even Oxford dons complain that some of our brightest students cannot write accurately.

But if it is true that employers want more literate employees than they are getting, then surely these employers ought to identify a satisfactory exam which if passed will ensure that the candidate is suitably literate, and make that a condition of entry. Problem solved.

Existing exams are not satisfactory, says Ms. Rickards.

It might not have mattered so much if GCSE English Language – the national test in literacy, which is being taken this week and next by nearly 700,000 15-year-olds – were not a fundamentally flawed exam. It is an inaccurate way of measuring literacy. Indeed, it is not really an exam at all.

Exam boards compete for business. They make a virtue of producing "friendly" options. In English Language GCSE, that means the exam may contain few surprises.

But if employers are so contemptuous of such alleged qualifications, why can they not establish their own standards, and create a different sort of competition, between examiners competing not to dumb down but to examine accurately the qualities which employers prize? Once this kind of exam system is established, this would be the one which teachers would prepare their pupils for. Seriously, why doesn't that kind of thing happen?

Instead of this, which is what happens now:

But there is more. Twenty per cent of the marks in English Language GCSE are for "speaking and listening". Many people who cannot write well can speak very well indeed. However, what employers and universities want to know is how good a student is on paper.

The inclusion of speaking and listening in the overall marks distorts this information. It should be graded separately. Another 20 per cent of the marks are for coursework. As this is not supervised, it, too, is a less than reliable benchmark.

And it gets worse.

When marking the exam papers, OCR examiners are instructed not to mark writing in section A "unless the expression is so bad it impedes communication".

In other words, for half of our national test in literacy, a sentince that had no fool stop or coma but contaned the rite anser in terms of meening (sic) could get full marks because the spelling and punctuation mistakes would be ignored.

Obviusly I coodent mis that parergrarf.

In other markets, the rich aren't the only ones getting a semi-decent product. I don't shop at Harrods, but I get good stuff at Tescos. So why can there not be semi-decent Tesco-style exams that regular people can study for and pass. And then they can enter the workforce with an adequate – and improving if that's what is wanted by those employers – ability to read and write.

Markets correct all sorts of other failings in the state system, like unsatisfactory maths or English teaching. People with the cash to spare on other educational extras sally forth and find them. So how come exams are such a shambles, and in basic English of all things? How come there is no "emerging private sector" in that?

My guess of an answer would be (a) the expense of setting up a new exam system, combined with (b) the phenomenon of "crowding out".

Start with (a). Establishing a successful exam brand is possible, but I would guess that it would be a major undertaking. It would be much more expensive than establishing a respected teaching system for example, because the key to success is getting a lot of people to respect the brand, all at once. Passing the exam if no one has heard of it is no good. Being the only employer who demands this particular sort of qualification would cause you to reject good people merely because they hadn't taken this exam. So the system has to catch on big time. It would be like launching a major software package.

Which means that (b), the crowding out effect, would be important. Crowding out is what the government does when it participates in a market, or threatens to, or is widely assumed to have to, in a way that makes it impossible to tell what it will be doing in two or three years time. If you want to start that brand new exam brand, your nightmare is that in three years time the government just might get its act together and start to compete seriously with you. It might, for example, copy what you've done but decide to be in charge of such a system itself, and cut you out of it, by bribing half your workers away from you. By the time it had become clear that you knew your business better than the government did, the damage would have been done to your bottom line. So, in a business like the exam business, best to stay out, and leave the field clear for short-termist cowboy chicanery, like selling the exam to the mere takers of it as something that is getting progressively easier, but which still sounds good – or which sounds as if it will sound good – to employers.

Which, I further surmise, is the world that the average pupil in the average state school now inhabits.

Hav er nise dei.

I was going to end this with that urmyoozing kwip, but I won't because there is another answer to this question, which is that there is an emerging market in exams now coming nicely to the boil. It's just that I haven't yet heard about it. If that is the case, have an even nicer day, and if you know about all this, please let me know about it too.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:22 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsSovietisation
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June 05, 2003
PhDs again – on confusing symptoms with causes

Yesterday I commented on this PhD overproduction thing, along the lines that once a measurement becomes a target it ceases to measure. But I did it badly, and I'm going to take another crack at it. Nothing like doing my duty for two days with one idea, is there?

The central point is the difference between measuring a mere symptom, and measuring the degree to which someone has deliberately scored highly, but only by that measurement.

Take the matter of PhDs, since that was the original subject. Time was when a PhD was a symptom of the fact that you were a budding scholar. You didn't do your research into your favourite brand of forest beetle and then write about it for your fellow scholars in order to get your PhD. You did it in order to find out more about the beetle and to tell friends and rivals about it and about the larger significance of it. The PhD was just an outward sign of your scholarly progress. Now, people say: "I want a PhD, what shall I do it in?"

Now of course I am somewhat romanticising this. Scholars have always been competitive and status conscious, and aware of the importance of titles and jobs. But at least they were concerned with scholarly jobs. The trouble erupts when a PhD, like a degree before it ("I want a degree, what shall I do it in?"), is treated as a qualification for the non-scholarly, real world out there.

What the real world used to value in PhDs was their genuine scholarly abilities, their ability to look at merely business problems from a fresh, even if rather bumbling and eccentric, angle, and to bring different sorts of knowledge and a different (more intellectual) sort of intellectual attitude to bear. Now (and I have friends exactly like this) you get smart, besuited go-getters showing up for interviews to become corporate go-getters, who do not now have and never did have any serious scholarly achievements or ambitions but who now call themselves Doctors. All very confusing. I suppose it's a symptom of the fact that, to an unprecedented degree these days, technical knowledge and intellectual facility is also money (human capital, etc.), and so therefore you have a new breed of money seeker who goes to money via knowledge and intellect, and via the honorific trappings of knowledge and intellect.

Please do not misunderstand this as any kind of attack on the principle of go-getting and money-making. I'm all for it. I'm just trying to contrive a world in which effort leads to actual results, instead of merely to pointless – and even career-blighting or life-ruining – educational qualifications.

A more extreme-for-illustrative-purposes example of the symptom/target muddle would be trying to cure a high fever by putting the patient in a fridge. Temperature does serve as a sign of illness, in the normal course of things. But merely bashing the temperature over the head by any means available is not the same as administering a cure.

That's a case of trying to remove something bad by hacking down the bad number which was measuring it. Now here's a real-world example of trying to stimulate something good by bashing up the good number. (Appropriately enough for here, it's another educational example, and one closely related to the problem of PhD overproduction.)

Observation: countries with lots of universities do well economically. Let's assume that that's true, approximately speaking. Ergo: we must build lots of universities and stuff into them any lazy thickos we can round up, perhaps by bending the academic entrance requirements. This may do some good things for some people, but the bit after Ergo absolutely does not automatically follow.

What if the proliferation of universities is a mere symptom of an underlying intellectual enthusiasm in the country, which is in no way stimulated by merely erecting more of the architectural consequences of such an enthusiasm? As soon as you identify "number of universities" as the good variable, and start to try to increase that number by going at it directly (instead of by somehow stimulating "intellectual enthusiasm", whatever that is and however you do that, and assuming that that is what is really causing the economic development, which may also not be true), then the number stops being useful as a measure of future economic prowess.

Because indeed, it may not be true that "intellectual enthusiasm" is the good variable here. What if what universities really signify is the mere presence of lots of rich people with time and money to burn arsing about at university, drinking and, yes, thinking – but not in a way that will ever enhance the nation's economic prowess? What if, in other words, proliferation of universities is entirely the consequence of economic prowess, and in no way its cause? I don't entirely believe this, but there's certainly a lot to this surmise, I'd say. If that's true, then to seek national economic success with a university building programme is like trying to get rich by buying your wife a diamond necklace, on the grounds that rich wives tend to sport diamond necklaces more often than poor ones.

(Another example of a symptom getting misused as a measurement would be if I measured my success here only in terms of how well I stuck to my minimum-of-one-posting-per-weekday rule. But mentioning that also points up that imposing such a number rule can do good things, because I believe that this rule, crude though it may be, has served me very well. Business people often use this kind of technique. Maybe just banging up more universities might do good after all, because it would at least get the gandchildren of coal-miners into the habit of thinking, and get them to realise that they might be able to make a better living by thinking better.)

Getting back to the PhD thing, Michael, I feel for you. (Doctor Michael Jennings, now holidaying in Bilbao (try the first link to the site as a whole if the second to the actual holiday posting doesn't work), commented glumly on the previous posting.)

Michael strikes me as a PhD of the genuine, original sort, one of life's actual scholars and gentlemen, complete with crumpled corduroy jacket that he ought to change more often and strange bow tie, spiritually if not literally, and a ton of knowledge about all manner of things and bags of intellect. The title "Doctor" ought to be reserved for the likes of him, so that employers could identify his special virtues, which I know him to possess, and realise that the cord jacket and bow tie (spiritually speaking) is just part of the package.

Personally, I'd like to see a verbal distinction made between scholars and the medical profession. I enjoy asking people who are only "doctors" in the economics of marketing (who are thus in my eyes doubly undeserving of the title) to cure my increasingly blocked sinuses. But that's a different argument.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:07 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[2] [1]
June 04, 2003
Jonathan Wilde (and me) on the (non-)value of a PhD

Jonathan Wilde emails thus:

I am a big fan of your education blog. …

A big fan. There you go, I have big fans. The desire to flatter is flattery itself, I always say. So what do I have to do for you, JW? Oh yes …

… I have made a post on the value of a PhD that you might be interested in on my blog.…

… link to your post and say things about it. Fair enough.

Opening paragraph:

How many times have you heard someone say, "The solution is education," in response to an endless list of social problems. Or, "Society needs educated people in order to thrive," or "The best thing we can do for the youth of America is give them a proper education"? Education is often regarded as the modern day panacea for societal ills. Pick a problem, any problem, watch some TV, and a talking head will propose education as the solution.

But Wilde goes on to note that, according to some, one of the biggest educational problems these days is the over-production of people with PhDs.

Wilde's piece is about the subjectivity of value – the value of things generally and the value to an employer of higher education in particular – and about the fact that all these excessive numbers of people with PhDs think they have something of "objective" value, but are mistaken.

Concluding paragraphs:

And the key point is this – what the employer values in an employee is completely subjective. As circumstances change, what the employer seeks in an employee changes. Just ask any computer programmer who was raking it in three years ago but cannot find a job today. The mistake that the PhD degree seekers often make is believing that by getting a PhD, they are getting objective economic value. They believe that after 4 years of college, 5 or more years spent pursuing a PhD, being published in journals, and writing and defending a thesis in front of scholars of their chosen field, they have something that is intrinsically valuable.

But as the Austrian school reveals, nothing is intrinsically valuable. Nothing has objective economic value. Job training, specialization, postgraduate degrees, certification, etc are only valuable if others value them enough to exchange wages for the labor of those who obtain them.

And of course, the larger question is – if education is to be the cure all for society's ills, how can a top-down structure ensure by design that employers value the skills and training obtained by graduates?

Indeed.

Moving off at a tangent somewhat (i.e. changing the subject almost totally), it seems to me that what we have here is also a confusion between the permanent (if still subjective and maybe over-produced) value of some item of actual education, some actual acquired ability, and the temporarily useful but soon overtaken-by-events sign that one is up at the front of some queue to demonstrate some combination of clevernesses such as one always had but needed somehow to prove. As soon as lots of people have PhDs, having a PhD ceases to prove that you are at the front of the PhD queue, merely someone who is in it..

For what it is worth, what I hear now (and that means that this could already be way out of date) is that the current big "meal ticket for life" qualification is being in or having been in one of the big name management consultancies. But give it ten years, and ex-McKinseyites (who all swallowed the claim that McKinseyness would indeed be a meal-ticket for life and who were thus hired for crap wages in vast numbers by McKinsey and used to clean their toilets and carry the luggage of the real McKinseyites and who barged in on the real McKinsey business and thus without realising it ruined McKinsey as a star enterprise and turned it into a mere brand-X enterprise) will likewise be flooding the labour market, and mostly likewise be unemployable. Not least because they were too stupid to see that this was happening.

This is a particular example of the general law, famously stated by somebody very important whose name I can't remember, that as soon as some particular variable is publicly identified as the way to measure something, it ceases to measure it, or for that matter to measure anything much at all. Something like that. That's a principle that applies to educational "results" of all kinds, not just PhDs.

Have a nice day.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:15 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsRelevance
[3] [0]
May 20, 2003
Testing politics

I'm watching Newsnight report on today's big education story, which is the government's relaxing of the ferocity of testing for primary school children. We are now, the government is saying, going to let teachers themselves make more of the assessments themselves. Schools will set more of the targets themselves.

Chris Woodhead, the former Chief Inspector of Schools, says that the big reason why things have got better in recent years, where they have, is because "we" have had objective information about which schools are doing well and which are doing badly. The new system will blur that information, and make improvement harder. The government, he says, is caving in to the teachers, or to what in the USA they call (and Woodhead likes this phrase also) "The Blob", although he didn't use that phrase on TV this evening.

Now Jeremy Paxman is grilling Stephen Twigg, Education Secretary Charles Clarke's number two, about just how definite the government's educational targets are. Will anyone resign if they aren't met? asks Paxman. Blab blah blah blah no blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blahblahblahblab – says Twigg.

Politics as usual, in other words. Will the nationalised education industry be run badly in an atmosphere of neurotic norm-fulfilment, or in an atmosphere of old fashioned, who-the-hell-knows-what-the-hell chaos.

If you're literate enough and interested enough in education to be reading this, teach your kids yourself at home, I say.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:59 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[0] [0]
April 29, 2003
Drinks with Antoine (1) – The Baccalauriat

We're at my nearest pub, and I ask my friend Antoine Clarke what I'm going to put here. I also tell him I mustn't get too drunk and fail to put anything at all.

First, he tells me about what's been happening to the French Baccalauriat (what with him having been French educated), which is what French boys and girls do while ours are doing A levels or GCSEs. It used to be that they got very little choice of subjects and were obliged to generalise. But recently, they've greatly increased the number of subjects from which you can pick, and that means that if you want to you can pick five subjects in a very closely related area, and end up doing a very specialised clutch of studies. I'm not saying that this is good or bad. I'm just saying. Meanwhile, there's talk in England of copying the original version of the Baccalauriat, to get our boys and girls to specialise less. So it looks as if we and France might be doing a switch here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:55 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
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April 14, 2003
The usual story

I have a longer posting to put up Real Soon Now, but I don't want to rush it, so in the meantime here's a quicky, in the form of news that a private sector in examinations may be nearer than most people think.

The public examination and testing system in England and Wales is under such strain that it is close to breakdown, according to a report from MPs due to be published today.

Youngsters also suffer unacceptable pressures from constant testing, according to the investigation into A-level standards which will be released by the influential Commons education committee.

The report urges ministers not to introduce changes to the secondary school exam system for change's sake, and to proceed warily with plans to replace A-levels with the more challenging baccalaureate exam.

It wants schools to do more internal testing themselves in more informal situations, and warns that the shortage of markers this year is likely to be a major problem despite moves to improve the situation, such as giving teachers time off school to mark.

Etcetera etcetera. As other bloggers with lives to get on with say: read all of it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:01 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[1] [0]
March 31, 2003
Julian Simon on cheating

Julian Simon throws light on the dishonesties of the education world with this recollection:

One of the findings of modern psychology is that people tend not to be consistent about whether they are "honest" or "dishonest". An experience of mine illustrates the principle. After I got out of the Navy I took a summer course in organic chemistry to complete my qualifications for entering medical school in the fall; most of the other 200 students also were pre-meds. There were two hours of classes and six hours of laboratory work every day – forty hours a week, with lots of homework. The instructor put tough competitive pressure on the students to obtain high yields on their lab experiments. The tension in the laboratory rose so palpably that it became obvious that students would begin to cheat. I passed on that observation to a lab assistant, but nothing was changed. Two-thirds of the way through the course the cheating began, and then the system broke down completely. The wholesale cheating was not due mainly to the characters of the students, but rather to the structure of the system.

My thanks to Chris Cooper for these links to Simon's stuff.

This is the world British education is heading towards. The extreme recent case is of that headmaster who simply rewrote his pupils' exam papers afterwards to improve them. In a different world with different incentives he wouldn't have behaved like this.

The throw-good-foreigners-at-it solution will be no solution at all.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:18 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[0] [0]
March 24, 2003
Lessons from Poland

I'm back from my trip to Krakov, and am in a position to tell you a little about the state of Polish education. My informants understandably concentrated on the top end of the system, both in age and in academic attainment, because that's the bit they all have most and most recent experience of.

I'll tell the story in two parts. First, there's what happened during Communism, and second, what has happened since.

Under Communism, the cleverer young people of Poland worked ferociously hard. Life did not offer many means of self advancement, but the people in charge of Eastern Europe did want weapons technologists. But there were not very many university places for such people. So, these places were keenly sought after, and the successful applicant got such a place by scoring percentages in maths exams, for example, that I still suspect of being an elaborate practical joke at my expense. I mean, 96 per cent? And in a test that most British maths graduates wouldn't get higher than 70 per cent in. Apparently so.

The point of this is that not only were the scientific and technological elite superbly diligent pupils; so too were all the ones who were trying for these positions but who would eventually fail to get them. The failures became, I don't know, minicab drivers I suppose.

My hosts were at pains to point out that this wasn't any sort of government plan. It hadn't been their deliberate intention to crank out a generation of semi-brilliant maths and science and technology wizzes. That's just the way it turned out. And to reinforce their point that none of this was deliberate, it occurs to me that this "policy" may have had quite a bit to do with the downfall of communism. First you stir up their minds and make them very, very clever. Then you treat most of them like empty milk bottles. Not clever politics.

What has happened since communism confirms one of the Continuing Theories of this blog, which goes that the private sector reflects the gaps and failures in the existing system. Whatever the official system does well, the private sector ignores. Whatever it does badly, it compensates for.

And what the Polish education system under Communism did really badly was, as I have just explained, educating the not-quite so-bright kids. It subjected them to an idiotically competitive exam race, and then just when it ought to have carried on educating them pretty well considering, it spat them out like so many failed Olympic gymnasts and forgot them.

Since the fall of communism there has been a huge eruption of free market education, in the form of what in Britain are called "minor public schools", and their university equivalent. There is no Winchester or Eton, where the richest and best get the best teaching there is. The state system continues to educate the brightest and best very well. But there are now lots of newly emerging private schools and private universities, of very variable quality, some of which are pretty good and improving, but many of which are decidedly dodgy, to teach the capable but not dazzling.

Some of them said the state system in general was descending into rack and ruin. Others said it wasn't that bad, and that the big change wasn't anything getting worse, but rather the sense that averagely clever averagely hardworking young people now have that if they work hardish and smartish they now had a chance to make something of their lives. And as you would expect, the people saying that things were getting worse were the people who had made it to the top under the old system, or who would have, while the optimists were the ones who didn't or wouldn't have been winners.

Which illustrates another point I probably go on about rather a lot here, what with it being true, which is that educational effort and educational attainment is anything but a mere matter of throwing quality teachers at pupils and watching them teach up a storm and crank out super-educated people. There is also the incentive structure of the wider society, which I would say is more important. If you have so-so teachers but seriously good reasons for people to want to study like hell – in other words if you have Poland under late communism – you get educational fireworks. If you have good teachers, but pupils who have no particular reason to do anything except sex, drugs and rock and roll, sex and drugs and rock and roll is what will be done.

If you want to know why state education in Britain is, at the bottom end, in decline, don't leave it at blaming the teachers, the teacher training colleges, the professors of education, etc., dreadful though a lot of these people undoubtedly are. Ask yourself this. Why does the teaching profession – and most especially the teacher teaching profession – consist largely of out-of-their-depth mediocrities, or worse? Is it inherent in teaching that it attracts only the dregs of society? I think not. The other explanation is that good, positive, optimistic people join the teaching profession by the thousand, and are either turned into incompetent miseries by the idiocy of their circumstances, or they leave and do something else where their goodness, unlike in state education, has the chance to do some good.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:31 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[0] [0]
March 12, 2003
Higher education is already nationalised

A different slant on the Bristol University ruckus from regular guest contributor Julius Blumfeld:

Following on from the Bristol University admissions debacle, Brian has written in favour of British Universities being free to decide who to admit. I’m not so sure.

Of course in the private sector, educational institutions ought to be free to teach what they want and to whom. If one University chooses to admit only poor bright students while another chooses to admit only rich thick ones, that’s fine by me.

But almost all British Universities are largely publicly funded and have been since even before the 1963 Robbins Report. For all practical purposes, they are State industries.

And like all State industries, decisions as to what they should produce and how they should produce it are necessarily political. It makes no more sense to say that British Universities should have the freedom to decide their own admissions policies than to say that the Army should have the freedom to decide who to fight or that the Health Service should have the freedom to decide which diseases to treat. Of course the bureaucrats in those industries will have a say in those sorts of decisions. So will the technicians. There may be room for a bit more autonomy here and there. But ultimately as long as the State is in charge, it will and must make the ultimate decisions. It’s one of the things that States do.

Indeed higher education is just an example of a wider problem with State-owned property. It is impossible to reach agreement on how State-owned property is best used because there is no agreed measure as to what counts as best use. I may think that Universities should be used for social engineering. You may think they should be used to churn out engineers. Brian may think they should be used to teach art and culture to the masses. Who is right? I don’t know and indeed there is no means of knowing. So we end up with such decisions being made by politicians (and, increasingly, I anticipate, by judges).

The fact is that as long as Universities remain in the State sector, it is inevitable that the State will make the decisions about what is taught and to whom. And it is equally inevitable that there will be hand wringing from those who don’t like the decisions that are being made. It could not be otherwise. It is only when the Universities finally wean themselves off their decades-long addiction to public funding and become private again (a process which this latest debacle will hopefully hasten), that they will become free to decide what to teach and to whom, and the whole debate will go away.

Julius Blumfeld

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:05 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsHigher education
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March 08, 2003
"Blazered Sloanes and Alice-banded bimbettes"

Here's some scorching prose from Robbie Millen on the Bristol University entrance row, from last Thursday's Times that I've only just noticed. (Paper version, links don't work, blah blah.) This is a story that seems to appeal to lots of people, definitely including me. Anyway here's about the first half of it:

There is no one more impossible to reason with than a stupid person who is ignorant of his stupidity. Correction: there is no one more impossible to reason with thatn a stupid person who is ignorant of his stupidity because it has been disguised by forceful teaching.

Bristol University abounds with such people, the slow-witted but straight-A products of private schools. So does Edinburgh, Newcastle or any university that has been glitter-dusted with social cachet. These people may be good on the rugger fields or useful on the May Ball committee, but in academic terms they are a waste of space. A stupid person, who has been well-taught in the science of passing exams, is inoculated against thinking, immune from picking up new ideas, and a bore for tutors. They add nothing to the life of the mind; the purpose, lest we forget, of university.

They are currently very angry that Bristol wants fewer of them. But the university should not be afraid that the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, the bastion of creamy-voiced whining, has declared a boycott, crying foul over alleged discrimination. Rather, Bristol should be glad to shake off its dated image as a drinking den for blazered Sloanes and Alice-banded bimbettes.

Let Bristol go farther to find bright children from state schools, pupils who have been boycotting the place for years, put off by its reputation. A pox on quotas and top-down silliness about targets – but any fool must recognise that a B from a bog-standard is worth an A* from St Cake's; and any tutor would rather teach a student with untapped potential than some dried-up husk from a hothouse school.

That's telling 'em. There are several more paragraphs of class warfare to follow, and the good bit is that, lefty though Mr Millen is, he still interrupts the flow of his invective long enough to pour scorn on on centrally imposed quotas. Let the universities decide for themselves. He's just giving them the benefit of his advice. Great stuff.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:38 AM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[1] [0]
March 07, 2003
Cheat!

This story, on the other hand, unlike the one linked to just below this, is deadly serious:

A teacher has been jailed for three months for tampering with test papers at two primary schools.

Alan Mercer, the former head teacher at South Borough Primary School in Maidstone, Kent, was sentenced at Maidstone Crown Court on Friday.

He pleaded guilty in January to 10 offences of forging Key Stage 2 assessments at South Borough in 2002.

The 46-year-old also admitted two charges of forging Key Stage 2 tests at Eythorne Elvington School in Dover and two charges of forging PESE Grammar School entrance exams at South Borough in 2002.

Mercer, of Prospect Row, Gillingham, Kent, had also asked for a further 140 offences of forging test papers to be taken into account.

Judge Keith Simpson said the case was "so serious" that an immediate custodial sentence was required.

He said: "If others were to act in this fashion the whole system would be immediately and utterly destroyed, and that cannot be allowed to happen.

This has got to be the most significant "sovietisation of education" story yet, or at any rate since I started this blog. This wretched man is like some Soviet factory manager who just went that bit too far in lying about his quota fulfilment.

For me, the key paragraph in the above report is the one about "if" others were to do the same. For of course they are pretty much bound to be others behaving similarly, only cleverly enough not to get caught. The right way to rig the system is by putting the effort into the priming of the kids, so to speak, just before the exam, surely.

There is an ever more inviting business opportunity here, in the form of a totally private enterprise, totally non-corruptible exam system, whose bosses are willing to be patient about building their reputation, and to subject any politician or teacher who tries to pressurise them to savage public denunciation (after maybe a couple of private warnings first).

The key to the success of the operation would be not to kiss the arses of the ed-pols and the ed-bureaucrats. For never forget that these people are now the biggest exam cheats, not the teachers, and not (as in the old days) the pupils. For it would not matter if the official pols and bureaucrats hated their entrails, following some row during which said pols and bureaucrats had received a public roasting from our heroes for having tried to get them to ease their standards a bit to make them look like less of a failure. Such rows would help, if handled right. The parents, the best schools, and the pupils themselves, would all, if the entrepreneurs in question were willing to be patient and to tough it out with their "official" competitor/enemies, eventually flock to such an alternative exam system. Why? Because it could become the one that schools, universities, and employers regarded as the best.

As the official, ever more politicised exam system degenerates into an ever more chaotic and uninformative mess, which makes comparisons between individual pupils, and between pupils from different years, ever more impossible and confusing, the opportunity for something unofficial gets ever more clear.

Meanwhile, I see that this wretched Head Teacher (and 3 months in jail is only the beginning of his miseries) is from Kent, like my friend the Assistant Head Teacher. So maybe I'll be able to pick up some further inside gossip about this case over the weekend.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:38 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[1] [0]
March 05, 2003
More thoughts on the Bristol University entrance row

I have often alluded here to my indifference or downright hostility towards national education stories compared to flesh and blood stories concerning actual, individual people. This goes way beyond logic, for national statistics are not always lies, and often reveal big events even if not with the accuracy they suggest. But my attitude towards national education statistics is, basically, that I'm against them. The government knowing the national picture concerning the state of this or that variable is inextricably intertwined with the government seeking to control that aspect of the picture.

The ongoing ruckus concerning the admissions policies of the various faculties of Bristol University is all mixed up with a national government effort first to count, and then to increase, the number of non-posh people going to university.

Margaret Hodge, the Higher Education Minister, has already told universities that they will be set new targets for increasing recruitment of teenagers from low-income homes and where neither parent went to university. They will also have to give special consideration to applicants from schools with a history of poor results. But she was forced by Mr Clarke into an embarrassing climb-down on Monday from a plan to set a specific target for increasing the proportion of working-class students at university by 2010.

That's from the front page (top right) of today's Times, paper version, which is to say that it's a big row. Posh schools are threatening to steer their best pupils away from Bristol, and are generally getting on their high horses and blowing their trumpets, which of course they are perfectly entitled to do.

The Mr Clarke in the quote above is the Minister of Education, and I get the impression that he isn't nearly as posh in his background as Margaret Hodge is. If that's right, then it's the posh one who wants anti-posh quotas, while the non-posh one isn't so bothered. That often the way. The people at the top of the ladder turn around and meddle with it. People half way up just want the thing to stay still.

I've already explained here why I think that Bristol University has a point in pursuing somewhat anti-posh entrance policies. I have also explained that I am opposed to the government imposing any policy from the centre, however sensible it might seem, pro-posh, anti-posh or of any other kind. What started out as a scheme to avoid neglecting bright kids from bad schools who would, if given a chance, do very well at university, is all too likely, if administered from the centre, to degenerate into a scheme that fills universities with proletarian dullards and excludes the brightest and best of all classes. So it's a good thing that Margaret Hodge is getting a roasting, and that when the dust has settled, the universities will probably continue to go their own ways. That is as it should be.

Bristol University is extremely untypical of Britain's universities in general in that they have publicly stated that they are skewing their system in favour of lower class students of high promise, and against those they see as the pampered posh. I don't know if this is what I would do if I were running a university, but that's not the point. The point is that each university should be allowed to pick its own students, and to be as public as it likes in saying how it does this.

But what if actually the Margaret Hodges of this world (by which I mean Britain) are actually winning this argument? What if Bristol is but the public tip of a vast private iceberg of anti-posh animus, with universities everywhere all refusing to accept the bright posh ones, while calmly denying in public that they are doing any such thing?

If the British government does make this policy stick, it would be interesting to speculate what the consequences for the country might be.

The assumption behind most discussions of this kind is that Britain's universities are places of unalterable and unchallengeable excellence, and the only question is who shall be permitted to bask in their glow. But what if our universities are driven into a state of collective decline by policies such as this, and by many other equally dictatorial arrangements concerning other matters, such as there being enough lady professors and students, and enough ethnic professors and students, and so on? What if a job at a university or a university degree becomes an indelible mark of mediocrity? What if our brightest and best were to start going straight from their teens into Real Life? At present these people spend about five more years being trained to be academics. In Real Life this means being trained as a paper shuffler, otherwise known as a bureaucrat.

I suspect that what would be considered very bad for the universities could turn out extraordinarily well for the country.

Proposed theory for discussion. When Britain's universities have been regarded as doing well, Britain has declined. When Britain's universities have been a corrupt and philistine shambles, Britain has raced ahead. Discuss.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:55 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[0] [0]
February 27, 2003
Consent is what matters

Should teachers be obliged to teach violent pupils? Personally I'd like a world where teachers could refuse to teach a pupil if they didn't like the colour of the pupil's eyes, and in which pupils could reject teachers for similarly subjective reasons. In short I believe in the consent principle being applied to education, as to everything else.

So I'm heartened by this report in today's guardian.co.uk:

Law lords told teachers today that they were within their rights to refuse to teach violent pupils even if the children were legally entitled to be in school.

In a landmark ruling the House of Lords held that such action was legal under trade dispute laws relating to teachers' terms and conditions of employment.

The lords also decided, by a 3-2 majority in a related case, that an expelled pupil allowed back to school on appeal had been properly "reinstated" even though he was taught in isolation from other children after teachers, backed by their unions, refused to have him in the classroom.

The two youths whose appeals were rejected today were expelled from different comprehensives in the south of England, but reinstated after their parents took the cases to local authority independent appeal panels.

Meanwhile, blazing from the front page of yesterday's Daily Mail is a story about alleged bias by some British universities, most especially Bristol, against "middle" (odd usage that – I've always thought "upper" would be more accurate) class children from private schools with good exam results, and, usually, good offers from other universities. Bristol University doesn't like junior toffs with the trick of passing exams, it would seem.

Well I say: Bristol University is entitled to its opinion. You could argue that children who've been to good schools which encourage academic attainment may not do as well at university, where a more self-propelled attitude is required, and that children who've had to fight for perhaps more modest exam success in a discouraging environment may do better at university. You could also argue that the fighters, if that's what they've been, deserve a crack at a degree course at a good university, rather more than their luckier rivals.

You could argue, and of course the Guardian does so argue:

For too long, universities have been over-endowed with brilliantly qualified, wonderfully personable private school pupils who turn out, once left to their own devices, to have been stretched to the very limits of their mediocre ability.

If this attitude at Bristol is but the tip of a national iceberg of prejudice against academically successful children from posh schools, centrally imposed or at least "encouraged" by the government, then that's bad. That would mean that Bristol is taking these lower class strugglers not because it wants to, but because the government wants them to, and that's not consent. But if Bristol truly wants this sort of student rather than some other sort of student, for whatever reason, then it should be their right to act as they want.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:19 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[0] [0]
February 25, 2003
How early in life does psychological testing work?

There are two kinds of test. There are the ones which you do to prove how hard and well you've been working, or which they make you do to find out how hard and well you've been working. And there are the kind which you do simply to find out what sort of person you are, or because someone else wants to find out what sort of person you are. I've been reading more of Robert Waterman's book Frontiers of Excellence (already mentioned here before in connection with Theory X and Theory Y) and he refers to all those psychological tests that Career Counselling experts unleash, provided all concerned have a bit of time and money to spend.

The tests give clues to how you prefer to interact with others, and the kinds of people you interact with best. They show whether you have a strong need to lead in some fashion or prefer to let others do so. The tests might suggest that one person performs best in chaos, while another person needs a logical orderly environment. When someone naturally suited to detail and follow-up work is placed in a job that demands developing broad strategies, then you've got a fish crawling across the prairie. That these complex but fairly distinct personality traits influence happiness at work, and most especially job performance, is to me highly obvious.

To me also. Waterman mentions various acronyms like FIRO-B, MBTI, 16PF, SIMA, and so on. I am an amateur career counseller myself, and ask questions designed to tease out, on an informal basis, just such an understanding of what makes my customers tick, or not tick and get miserable. I keep meaning to try to learn more about these tests, or "instruments" as the psychology people apparently prefer to call them. Clearly googling can teach me a lot.

But Question: How soon does it make any sense for a child to take such test? Assuming that a child is eager or at least willing to learn or to allow others to learn about how he functions most happily and effectively, at what age are the broad outlines of a child's personality, in this sort of sense, established?

You can see what kind of personality I am: better at asking good questions than answering them with good answers, and better at "broad strategy" than detail. So, people, help me with the details here?

I don't have any children myself, but the anecdotal evidence I get from all parents I've ever talked with about such things who have more than one child is that children are very distinct in their personalities pretty much from year zero. On the other hand I also hear that children change a lot over the years, especially the early years.

What follows from the answers to such questions is extremely controversial, but what I am interested in here is the simple factual question. Assuming these tests do tell us things about adults, do they also discover truths about younger people? Or don't they work under a certain age? Perhaps they can identify how a person might best set about learning things for the next couple of years, but not what strategies are likely to work for that same person in later life?

One can imagine such truths, if discoverable, to be used to unleash all manner of horrors and premature decisions on children, and in general to fill the world with yet more self-fulfilling prophecies about what this or that child is capable of achieving. Much the same point is made about claims concerning the alleged intellectual differences between different racial groups. Such objections to the pyschological testing of children are not empty. But all that is quite beside the point I'm asking about here, which is simply that I'd like to know the truth about this. Once I've learned the truth, I promise not to jump to any logically imperfect conclusions from it. Anyone?

The two people who spring to mind as likely to have helpful input on this are John Ray and Michael Jennings, the former because he is an academic psychologist, and the latter because if you ask him any question on just about any technical type subject he seems to be able to come back at you with a useful answer within about two hours. Example: portable phones in the London Underground. Seriously, Jennings is a great learning resource, a sort of super-intelligent search engine in humanoid form. I wonder what the psycho-testers would make of him? And I wonder what he was like when he was three?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:31 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[1] [0]
December 10, 2002
An immigration official who keeps on learning

I am gradually tuning in to which Brit-blogs are good sources on British educational matters. Thanks to a very acute comment on this piece by me at Samizdata, I learned of Junius. Properly I mean. I'd heard the name. Now I'll be reading the blog. He's a University lecturer of some sort, and in due course I'll learn what sort. Recommended. See this for example.

I followed Junius to BritishSpin, who has stopped blogging, it seems. And at BritishSpin I found this, a story about the sublimely predictable "Individual Learning Accounts" screw-up, a story which, BritishSpin tells us, is told at greater length by Iain Coleman. Indeed it is. Also recommendeed, as are BritishSpin's comments on it.

I go to the Iain Coleman home page to find out who and what he is, and there I find this, a truly charming education story or to be more exact, self-education story.

Going to big international conferences, it's quite common to end up getting the same plane flight as a lot of other people going to the same place, many of them identifiable by the long poster tubes in their carry-on luggage. This trip was no exception: the aircraft was full of geophysics bods of every stripe, from space physicists to oceanographers.

Now it's been a few years since my last US trip, and I'd forgotten how desperately slow and bureaucratic the immigration system is. We spent ages going through passport control, mainly because the officials felt the need to have a little personal chat with every single person. That's not what you need after ten hours on a 747, no matter how pleasant the flight (and it must be said that BA were excellent).

When it was my turn, the customs chap asked me why I was visiting the US. "Attending a scientific conference," I replied. He then proceeded to ask me all about my field (space plasma physics), how we gather data (in situ from spacecraft measurements, no samples brought to Earth), or ground-based remote sensing) and so on. Then he waved me through.

Talking to my colleagues afterwards, it transpired that every one of them had been asked a series of detailed questions about their own fields, and nothing at all about anything else that an immigration official might reasonably take a professional interest in. In the time it took us to be admitted to America, this guy had effectively got a mini-tutorial in every single branch of geophysics. He's probably not really supposed to take advantage of his position to further his own scientific education, but I approve nonetheless.

Inevitably, one of the commenters says that this was more likely to be something to do with US national security, rather than self-education. Yes. And the guy was probably not listening at all, just studying Coleman's upper lip for sweat or stalling while some spooky machine searched his luggage or his bodily orifices. But I prefer Coleman's interpretation. And even if he's wrong, I find it charming that, educator that he is, education is what he saw going on.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:53 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[1] [0]
December 01, 2002
Those were the days

For all of my readers who enjoy being told just how precipitately Western Civilisation has been collapsing lately, here is an 1895 8th Grade Final Exam from Salina, Kansas. Thanks to fellow Samizdata scribe Dale Amon for the link.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:50 AM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[5] [0]
November 30, 2002
Degrees: a barrier to advancement?

A few years ago I speculated how long it would be until a university degree was a positive handicap when it came to getting a job. It would seem reading this letter from a solicitor in the Telegraph that that day is upon us. The key line is this:

Lack of practical experience means that many graduates would have done better to have left academic life earlier and attained the background which would make them a more attractive prospect to an employer with vacancies (and thereby future opportunities) to fill. The apparent self-esteem and expectations of some candidates render them unemployable.
It was only a matter of time.

Posted by Patrick Crozier at 03:22 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
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