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Category Archive • Politics
January 14, 2005
You can't touch me I'm part of the Union …

From today's Guardian:

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:04 PM
Category: Politics
[3] [0]
January 12, 2005
Natalie gets educational

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:50 AM
Category: BloggingPoliticsThis and that
[1] [0]
November 17, 2004
Less is Good, Nothing is Better: Sean Gabb on How the State Can Improve British Education

SeanGabb.jpgSean Gabb's latest Free Life Commentary, Number 128, is up. It is an uncompromising attack on the entire principle and practice of State Education. Sean describes the present mess, and concludes:

The only answer is to get the state entirely out of education. The education budget should not be expanded, or its administration reformed. It should simply be abolished. That £49 billion - now, I believe, £63 billion - should be handed back to the people in tax cuts; and these should be directed at the poorest taxpayers. The schools should be sold off or given away, and the bureaucrats be made redundant. The people should then be left to arrange by themselves for the education of their children.

The argument that parents would not or could not do this falls flat on any inspection of the third world, where parents make often heavy sacrifices and choose often highly effective schemes of education. There is also the experience of our own past. A generation ago, E.G. West showed how growing numbers of working class people in the 19th century paid for and supervised the education of their children. The beginning of state education in 1870 should be seen as ruling class coup against an independent sector that looked set to marginalise its legitimation ideology. And that reaction was promoted on the basis of fraudulent statistics.

Left to themselves, it is inconceivable that parents would not do substantially better than those presently in charge of state education. How they might do this is for them to decide. Some would pay for a conventional independent education. Some would send their children to schools run by their ministers of religion, or by charitable bodies. Some would educate their children at home. Many do this already, by the way; and Paula Rothermel of Durham University caused a stir in 2002, when she looked at a sample of children educated at home and found they performed consistently better in standard tests than schoolchildren - indeed, she found that the children of people like bus drivers and shop assistants were receiving a better education than those committed to the care of state-certified teachers. Parents could hardly do worse than the present arraignments manage. They could easily do better.

This is not a "left" or a "right" wing cause. It is about allowing children to get an education which is not directed to moulding them to believe as suits the convenience of their betters, and which really will enable them to make the best of their own lives.

Such are precisely my opinions. The only reason I do not belabour my readers here every day with such views quite as relentlessly as I might (aside from the fact that this would make this blog even duller), is that opinions is all that they would be, coming from me. I have very little direct experience of what Britain's education system is like in reality (although I am now beginning to acquire it). Sean Gabb, on the other hand, has taught for the last several years in one of the less stellar (i.e. not one of these) of London's universities, and daily confronts both what the products of Britain's state education system are like, and, equally important, how those products compare with the products of the education systems in other countries. When he compares, for example, the English fluency of young English people with that of young African people (as he does earlier in this piece), he has actual direct knowledge on which to base such comparisons.

On the other hand, Sean has been an uncompromising libertarian for just about as long as I have know him, and this is a case of prejudices refined and informed, rather than merely deduced from his relatively recent day-by-day experiences as an educator. Sean, like me, is predisposed to judge state actions to be, on the whole, bad, and the actions of free people to be, on the whole, good. Some would say that such prejudices render our particular views on education nearly worthless. I would say (and I'm sure Sean also) that if you do not have such prejudices, you should.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:43 PM
Category: Politics
[13] [0]
"… let the position go unfilled …"

Lileks yesterday:

As for the Department of Education, I'd like to see an experiment: let the position go unfilled for four years and see if it has any impact on the educational abilities of the nation's youth. I'm guessing no one would notice if we didn't have a Secretary of Education. Everyone just keep on doing what you’re doing, and get back to us.

Same here. But teachers and schools here would definitely notice. Suddenly, the only initiatives and shake-ups would be their own.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:51 AM
Category: Politics
[2] [0]
November 11, 2004
Another history textbook battle

And here's another political row (see also this earlier posting) being fought out on the terrain of school history textbooks, this time the one between Taiwan and mainland China. China View says that Taiwan and mainland China share a common history, which is true. But China View stirs this truth in with the claim that therefore Taiwan simply cannot in the present or ever in the future be politically independent from mainland China, which is false.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:17 AM
Category: HistoryPoliticsThe curriculum
[0] [0]
November 09, 2004
The Great UKeU Learning Experience

The BBC reports on a fairly typical piece of public sector failure, in this case of the inelegantly named UKeU. See also these earlier BBC reports, here and here.

The basic problem seems to have been that the people running this thing thought that a good educational idea (even assuming that this is what it actually was which it probably wasn't) is enough for the whole wants-to-be-educated world to come pounding on your door. But, in business in general, and most definitely in education in particular, there is a little thing called reputation. You have to have one of these, it has to be good, and it can take a while to establish it.

And the other problem, of course, is that shovelling stuff onto the internet and exchanging emails with students is no longer rocket science, and is being done by other universities. As Americans would say: wow, never saw that coming.

The attitude of the Minister who inherited this mess reminds me of those comedy sketches about maintenance men who say "Who installed this then?" when the answer is: "You did, mate." You, as in this government. You set it up.

Current Minister Howells says that the "marketing" was poor.


... he would not call the failure of the project a disaster because he was interested in the lessons learned.

Ah. A learning experience.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:31 PM
Category: Computers in educationHigher educationPolitics
[0] [0]
November 03, 2004
Chasing the terrorists – in schools and everywhere else

A recent Islamabad news item:

Pakistan's Education Minister Lt Gen (retired) Javed Ashraf Qazi has said that a few of the Madarssahs or religious schools situated near the country's border were involved in terrorist activities.

According to Dawn, Qazi who accompanied the outgoing US ambassador Nancy Powell to a community school in Nirola said that the government was keeping a close watch on the activities of seminaries suspected of being involved in terrorist activities and was contemplating serious action against them.

He further added that the government was seriously trying to streamline the madarssahs into a compact system and had even entered into collaboration with the Wafaqul Madaris in this regard.

"Streamlining of madaris is going on at a good pace and the ministry in collaboration with Wafaqul Madaris is taking every possible measure for timely Madarssah reforms," the report quoted him as saying. (ANI)

As I wonder what I'm going to add to that, I'm watching a BBC4 TV show about Who Runs America (scroll down to the final one), and an FBI terrorist chaser is being interrogated about his work by a bloke from the BBC. Yesterday there was a Presidential Election in which the War on Terrorism was the number one issue.

It may be that all this effort will eventually come to be thought of as a huge overreaction to what was actually a quite minor problem. But that will only happen if there are no more major terrorist successes, and personally I'd settle for that. The FBI guy is talking about this War being "won". But if that happens, it will be because, one day, people realise that hey, we aren't thinking about that Terrorism thing any more. He won't get a big parade. He'll just find his department downgraded, and if he is personally felt to have done well, he will simply find himself assigned to other duties.

Meanwhile, for the time being, the interest that the rest of us have in the nature of Islamic education is going to be about more than just how they teach things like the 3Rs.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:12 PM
Category: IslamPolitics
[0] [0]
October 27, 2004
Children doing politics

Instapundit has been colonised by invaders called "Althouse", "Totten", and such things. And the pieces seem to be longer than usual, and as such things to link to, rather than just little snippets to acknowledge links from.

Today there is an Althouse piece, full of further links, about schoolchildren being used to assist in the US Presidential Election:

I firmly believe that once the state compels young people to attend school, deprives them of their freedom, it owes the highest duty to them to use their time only in ways that benefit them. To see them as a source of free labor or to exploit them for any purpose that is not itself a good reason for depriving the young of their freedom is a great wrong.

Regulars here will all know what I feel about this. Don't compell school attendance, and allow children to play whatever politics they want, and to have real votes, at will.

UPDATE: Don't miss the UPDATE.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:55 PM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
October 14, 2004
A lesson in genocide

Adam Balling reports on an odd use for a publicly owned school. I got to this from here.

This convention was a fine Orwellian display, complete with doublespeak, ritualized hatred, and the policing of "thought crimes." All who disagreed openly were barred from the radical teach-in at the public school. I was only there because I went in "under cover." That the San Francisco Unified School District rented its space to an exclusionary meeting of terrorist-supporting fanatics – in violation of state and federal laws, and possibly the USA PATRIOT Act – defies description. These people want America destroyed, and are not shy about it.

Towards the end of Balling's report:

The message at this conference was intended to guarantee the outcome of a triumphant Palestinian revolution that would be a nationalist massacre: the ethnic cleansing of Jews. If allowed, the elimination of Israeli society by force – the desired victory – would be genocidal. The Marxists and fellow travelers at Horace Mann Middle School, however, did not call it genocide. They called it "all forms of resistance" against "the imperial rule" of "Zionist apartheid settlers" and on behalf of "the right of return for all Palestinians." Do not be fooled: the only tangible result of these stated objectives would be the mass murder of all but those Israelis who managed to escape. The invading Arab paramilitary would not take the time to build camps.

Quite a lesson. I wonder if Horace Mann Middle School will get into any bother about this. Perhaps it already has.

I'm guessing that Horace Mann would be this Horace Mann, yes? I wonder what he would have thought about this conference.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:17 PM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
September 24, 2004
Another posting done for here but posted over there

KimHowells.jpgI've just done a posting about a Kim Howells outburst on Samizdata. (The posting was on Samizdata, not the Kim Howells outburst.) It was one of those pieces where I only realised at the last second that it would do for Samizdata, instead of merely for here.

I was going to include this rather striking photo of the man here, along with the rest of the original posting, but for Samizdata it was beside the point. But here it is here anyway.

I find writing for Samizdata hard, and for here relatively easy, or that's how it is at the moment. Here I have the mind fix that I have no "readership" to alienate with bad writing, just the occasional passing freak in pyjamas. This may not be true, but I find it more relaxing to assume.

At Samizdata, there are many, many, fully-dressed readers to worry about. Samizdata postings have to be of a certain standard, and that can be worrying.

So now you know. I think that all six of you are trash.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:43 PM
Category: PoliticsThis Blog
[7] [0]
September 21, 2004
No US voter un-got-at

Here's a headline to savour:

House parties planned to educate voters on education

The nation's largest union is teaming up with teachers and liberal political groups to sponsor simultaneous, education-themed "house parties" in Palm Beach and Broward counties and across the country Wednesday night.

The social calendar will never be the same.

Bring your concerns about public schools, not booze or funny hats.

Yes. What do you think this is, a party? This is education we're talking about. You're not here to enjoy yourselves.

Organizers hope the first-ever National Mobilization for Great Public Schools gets more people focused on education issues before the general election and beyond.

So, that would be "educate" as in propagandise, and "education" as in spending lots more money on schools.

While the event is billed as nonpartisan, the main sponsor is the National Education Association, the 2.7 million member union and teacher professional group that has endorsed Democrat John Kerry. Co-sponsors include MoveOn.org, the Web-based liberal organization that regularly bashes President Bush.

And they'll be doing some non-partisan Bush-bashing.

The federal No Child Left Behind law, the cornerstone of Bush's education-reform program, is billed as a key discussion topic. A Web site previewing the festivities claims "the White House and Congress are failing to provide the basics. Worse, the White House now plans to cut education programs in the first budget after the election."

Which makes me think that "No Child Left Behind" may not be as bad as I had been

This guy certainly thinks that it is doing some good.

The president began putting the first part of his education reform package into place literally hours after he took the oath of office. The morning after the inauguration, he and Mrs. Bush listened carefully as Reid Lyon and other top education researchers presented their findings at a White House forum on reading pedagogy. The president made it clear that he wanted federal reading policy to go "wherever the evidence leads."

From his gubernatorial days, Bush already had a good idea that the evidence was leading straight to phonics. Following Lyon’s advice, he had pushed local districts in Texas to adopt phonics-based curricula and saw reading scores in the state shoot up, particularly for minority kids. The number of third-graders – 52,000 – who failed the reading test at the start of the Bush governorship declined to 36,000 when he left for the White House and has since dropped to 28,000, now that all his reforms are up and running. Since then, the evidence has become irrefutable. After reviewing dozens of studies – some using magnetic resonance imaging to measure differences in brain function between strong and weak readers and among children taught to read by various methods – the National Reading Panel, commissioned by Congress, concluded in 2000 that effective reading programs, especially for kids living in poverty, required phonics-based instruction.

Within a week of taking office, the Bush administration devised a strategy for getting a $6 billion "Reading First" phonics initiative past the relevant House and Senate education committees. The administration was offering school systems a deal that went like this: "The federal government will give you lots more money than ever before for early reading programs. Nothing obligates you to take the money. But if you do take it, the programs you choose must teach children using phonics." Hardly a single legislator raised doubts about tying federal reading dollars to instructional approaches backed by a consensus of the nation’s scientific experts.

This "scientific experts" stuff strikes me as somewhat questionable, but I'll leave those questions for another time.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:32 PM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
July 31, 2004
Closing a small school

This is why there should be a free market in education:

The council at the centre of a legal wrangle over the future of a community school wanted to "eradicate" small rural schools, a court heard today.

Parents from Hermon school in Pembrokeshire, west Wales, are fighting plans to close it, and have taken their case to the High Court.

Pembrokeshire Council wants the 53 pupils and those from nearby Blaenffos transferred to a £1.5 million school at a third village, Crymych.

In his closing submission in the case, Nicholas Bowen, representing the parents, said the council had "a determination that big is beautiful and small needs to be eradicated".

He added: "What they have left out of the account is the real compelling evidence that things are extremely successful from a parental point of view and from an education point of view in this happy community school.

"There has been no proper consideration of all the arguments put as to why the status quo should be supported.”

He said part of the council’s case relied on planning guidelines which meant the centre of the community was regarded as being in Crymych.

He said: "They have devalued the importance of the community and the importance of the asset, by reference to planning guidelines which have absolutely no proper place in a decision like this."

He said the guidelines were "mumbo-jumbo".

Yesterday Rhodri Williams, for the council, told the court the council had no blanket policy to close small schools, and that the new school at Crymych was just 1.8 miles from Hermon.

The phrase "… just 1.8 miles" says it all.

If there were a completely free market in education, there would surely be someone willing to run a local school in this particular locaity, for all those for whom localness is what matters most.

I recall my mum getting involved in a long drawn out national dispute about small hospitals, which the Powers That Be were then busily closing, but are now busy rebuilding under a different name ("health centres" etc.). The same error was embodied in that decision, which is to measure only some numbers, and to make those numbers better by building bigger, while forgetting other things that are not measured, like miles travelled by the poor bloody punters to get to the new mega-places. (This is especially bad if the poor bloody punters are sick or injured.)

Capitalists often make mistakes of this sort, but when they do, their customers start screaming, desert in droves, take their business elsewhere, and – one way or another – the bad decision is reversed. Often at great expense, but reversed. It's all very public and it makes the private sector look bad because of its best feature, which is that, messily, it does correct the worst of its mistakes. And it is this all too imperfect arrangement that the politicians have finally learned that that they must somehow recreate. Mostly, they try to fake it. That is a start. But one day, I hope we have it for real.

The public sector just steamrollers forward, and uses its own cock-ups as reasons for being given yet more money to waste.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:55 PM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
July 27, 2004
Experiencing it at first hand

AliMiraj.jpgThis article by an aspiring Conservative politician Ali Miraj about an unruly visit to a South London school is worth a read. The kids are out of control, but they aren't evil.

His recommendation is that teachers and schools should be, you know, better. Great idea. But the banality of his prescription shouldn't deflect attention from the excellence of his description of how things now are.

The complete lack of discipline was overwhelming and disturbing. My thought - somewhat predictably - was that this would never have happened in my day. It would have led straight to detention. But my day was only 11 years ago. Had things really got this bad in schools?

We have all heard the stories about deteriorating classroom behaviour, but it is very different experiencing it at first hand. What these children needed was a firm, metaphorical kick up the backside. They had no respect for authority. It was only when the head of year entered the room and threatened the troublesome children with exclusion that a momentary hush descended.

Then it got worse. A near riot broke out in the neighbouring classroom where my colleague was talking about the attractions of medicine as a career. Half my class promptly jumped up and ran next door to play their part in the fracas. Those remaining looked at me apologetically. "Carry on, sir," said one of them, reassuringly.

He made some headway, however, and satisfied himself that although lacking in respect for authority, these kids were not stupid. Like he says, schools ought to be … better.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:34 AM
Category: Politics
[1] [0]
July 22, 2004
"… an anti-education bias …"

I've been linking to quite a lot of American material from here lately, and here's another link to something else American, in the form of a piece by Steven Yates called How I Survived Government Schools.

But although American, it sounds extremely like the government schools here in Britain:

I also do not question that there are teachers out there who care about children and are sincere, serious, and dedicated to their craft. But they are also caught up in schemes like "classroom management" (the euphemism for teachers as social directors, controlling unruly children in today’s politically correct environment of hypersensitivity) and teaching to standardized tests. Many suffer from high levels of stress, and some eventually leave the profession out of frustration. There are too many agendas in government schools not under the control of teachers, or even of principals and local districts. They result from directives coming from Rome on the Potomac, often with huge sums of money as a reward for compliance. In most states, districts either follow the new federal guidelines or they lose federal dollars. Teachers either teach to the test or their recertification is refused! The current buzzword: accountability.

In sum, whatever anti-Christian bias exists in government schools is not their only problem. From the start, I perceived an anti-education bias, in the sense of education as what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called an adventure in ideas. In this conception, a primary purpose of education is to produce informed, intellectually curious and vigilant citizens for a free economy and a free society. That School-to-Work, Workforce Investment, No Child Left Behind, and other unconstitutional federal programs do not have this as their primary purpose, you can rest assured!

You do not need a resolution by some religious body to remove your children from government schools. You don't even need to be a Christian. You only need a strong sense that your child's mind might be at stake.

For Rome on the Potomac read, I don't know … Babylon on Thames?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:31 AM
Category: Politics
[1] [0]
July 21, 2004
Education as punishment

Here is a reminder that sometimes "education" isn't quite as nice as it sounds:


The Chinese military surgeon who exposed the government's cover-up of the Sars crisis was released yesterday after seven weeks of "political re-education", his family said.

Jiang Yanyong, 72, a semi-retired general in the People's Liberation Army, had been detained at a secret location where he was forced to undergo daily study sessions aimed to make him renounce a critical letter he had written about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

I wonder exactly what lesson this man chose to learn from this dose of education, although maybe "detention" would be a better word for what he endured.

The lesson they were trying to teach him was don't make trouble.

A lot of the educational news concerning China is now quite good. This story is a salutary reminder that not all of it is.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:33 PM
Category: ChinaCompulsionPolitics
[0] [0]
July 12, 2004
Gordon Brown versus education

I recommend a read of this article by Peter Oborne, about Oliver Letwin's analysis of the Government in general, and of Gordon Brown's manic meddlesomeness in particular. Here is the particularly educational bit:

Letwin's arguments are partly set out in his speech on 'Gordon Brown’s Big Government' published on Tuesday. He demonstrates, with felicitous use of examples drawn mainly from government reports, how Gordon Brown’s obsession with central control has doomed New Labour's well-intentioned attempts to reform public services. The Chancellor’s insistence on micro-managing every area of public life through Whitehall-imposed targets, endless bothersome initiatives, grants-in-aid, public service agreements, etc., is squeezing the life out of our hospitals and schools.

Less and less of the investment intended for the national public services actually reaches its destination. Instead it is captured halfway by the bureaucrats and regulators setting and monitoring the targets, interpreting the data and managing the schemes. Letwin demonstrates, for example, that of 88,000 new posts created in education by New Labour, just 14,000 are teachers and teachers' assistants. Meanwhile the task of the teachers themselves is made far more wearisome and difficult by the New Labour army of bureaucrats. Letwin claims that the new regulations just issued by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority mean that a teacher in charge of 30 five-year-olds 'is expected to write a report on their pupils' aptitudes and achievements which exceeds the length of Paradise Lost'.

Which of course pulls things in the opposite direction of all this, to say nothing of making the Conservatives sound a whole lot smarter than I did in that posting.

Gratuitous photos of Oliver Letwin and Gordon Brown:

Letwin.jpg    GordonBrown.jpg

And see also this piece about the burdens imposed by Mr Brown. And by his predecessors, because it didn't start with him.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:08 PM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
July 11, 2004
No Child Left Behind and No Taxpayer Unrobbed

Eduwonk identifies the No Child Left Behind thing as one of the big undiscussed stories in US education right now, pointing out …

How President Bush's mishandling of NCLB has created a mess for his signature education law, alienated even supporters, and potentially hamstrung some school improvement efforts.

I would like to think that this is not only what is happening, but what is now seen to be happening. But that may be too optimistic, and the fear I expressed in that Samizdata piece, that Spend More Money will now make all the running, will be the truth of it, and certainly so in the short run.

In general, when a government announces that absolutely everyone ("no child left behind") in some rather-hard-to-help category of people is going to be "helped", expect trouble – that they won't actually help everyone being the least of it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:07 PM
Category: Politics
[1] [0]
July 09, 2004
How will this look in five years time?

elephant.jpgOh no! A Five Year Plan.

Parents and children will be able to choose from a higher-quality of schooling in their local community under education reforms published today by Education Secretary Charles Clarke.

Under the government's 'Five-Year Strategy for Children and Learners' plan, every school will be an independent, specialist school with new freedoms to run their own affairs, backed by the security of an historic three-year budget so they can achieve the highest standards for every single pupil.

Mr Clarke said that every reform will be firmly rooted in five key principles: greater personalisation and choice, with the wishes and needs of children, parents and learners centre-stage; opening up services to new and different providers; freedom and independence for frontline headteachers, governors and managers; a major commitment to staff development with high-quality support and training to improve assessment, care and teaching; and partnerships with parents, employers, volunteers and voluntary organisations.

Mr Clarke said that these principles would deliver new guarantees for all pupils and parents and for all those who deliver education and children's services.

In other words, what I said here, towards the end. In other words, this is actually a very good five year plan, as five year plans go.

Tonight I will be attending a soirée chez Tim Evans, and we will no doubt be agreeing about how Tim saw this coming but the Conservatives didn't.

This is their policy! Will they yelp that the Government stole it? (Bad idea. If it's a good idea then it's good that the government is doing it.) Or will they oppose it, and promise merely to throw money at education? (Even worse. Why, until now, was this their idea?)

Right answer for the Conservatives: agree with it, and split the Labour Party. Say: vote for the party that really believes in this stuff, unlike the massed ranks of the Labour Party, beyond the front bit. But that's probably too clever for them.

See also, Tom Utley in the Telegraph covering the same ground. He reminds me that I forgot (c) pretending that the Government's policy is not what it is, which is stupid, on account of being stupid.

Although, this Telegraph leader says that this is an example of the Conservatives leading the debate and that "Labour is on the run".

We shall see.

UPDATE: I keep looking for stuff to blog about on Samizdata, which needs things today, and all I keep finding are further links to add to this posting. For example this one, about the man who is trying to take over Marks and Spencer. He's going to sponsor some schools, apparently.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:32 PM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
June 28, 2004
The Conservatives say they will exclude

This could be a Conservative vote winner.

Disruptive pupils will be sent to tough new day units and subjected to "no-nonsense discipline" under Tory education plans to be unveiled this week.

No doubt the actual details of the policy will involve the odd spot of nonsense, but I'm talking politics here, and politics is always nonsensical.

There are plenty of people in the upper reaches of the Government who understand that discipline is crucial to making state school function adequately, and that the key to discipline is being able to exclude unruly pupils. But lower down in the system are people who fatuously hope to achieve discipline without either violence or exclusion. "Society" must be "inclusive" blah blah. Can't be done. The Conservatives have a strong issue here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:10 AM
Category: ExclusionPolitics
[2] [4]
June 27, 2004

Matthew d'Ancona, in today's Sunday Telegraph, made me smile with this:

A minister close to Mr Blair once asked me what would be a good objective for the Prime Minister to announce in a forthcoming conference speech. I said that he should commit his Government to reducing the percentage of parents who send their children to private schools - not by penalising those schools in any way, but by making the state sector so attractive that parents no longer felt the need to look elsewhere. The minister, normally garrulous and Tiggerish, went strangely quiet.

Much is made, by people in my corner the political opinion map, of the phrase "schoolsandhospitals". But d'Ancona ruminates on the differences between schools on the one hand, and hospitals on the other – between education and health. In particular, he speculates that the Conservatives, who still get nowhere on the health issue and just bleat that they will spend more money, might actually make some headway with their complaints about and policies for education.

Another reason why health is different from education is that the kind of clever, young, opinionated people who make the running in political policy creation are usually right in the middle of that time in their lives when they are least concerned, personally, about health. They are, in short, very healthy. They have no recent experience of serious healthcare, and they face no immediate prospect of it. They have hardly any sustained experience of - or, yet, much fear of - what it is actually like to spend a year in a hospital, or to have to combine staying alive with suffering from a chronic disease. They may learn from some survey or other that "people" care very much about the NHS, but this is a truth they most of them must accept at second hand.

By contrast, these clever young persons have just emerged from a couple of decades of the best that our nation's educational system can offer. They are good at this, and that is pretty much all they are good at. No wonder they take it so seriously, and want everyone else to, and are full of opinions about how to improve it, even if the teachers dread these plans.

However, voters are different, and so are many of the more senior politicians who seek their votes. Voters are old. Voters have young children. Voters have dispiriting jobs, which they seek medical excuses to avoid every now and again. So voters know about health and care about health even if policy wonks care less about it.

But second, and probably more important, is the fact that many millions of voters must surely feel, and with some justification, that they could teach their children, and other people's children, just as effectively as the actual teachers do. They could be wrong, but that is surely how they feel. They all have years of experience of the most important thing that goes on in schools, which is the teaching that goes on in classrooms, and the only reason they don't then teach for a living themselves is that they've more lucrative and interesting ways of spending their lives. If all state school teachers disappeared to the West Indies for permanent holidays, they would rapidly be replaced, by the electorate, and in a way that might very possibly be an improvement. This may not be true, but lots of people surely think this.

But your average voter would have no such confidence if he was suddenly asked to perform a hip replacement. Medicine involves real knowledge, real training. Teaching? Anyone can do that.

So, when people think about health, they think: could be far worse. Don't mess with it.

When they think about education, they think: could do far better. Give it a good kicking. What's the worst that could happen?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:08 PM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
June 14, 2004
An interesting website about an interesting school

This looks like a really interesting little row.

One of Hounslow's most successful schools has been severely criticised by a website claiming to represent some of its students.

The Heathlands School, in Wellington Road South, has some of the best results of the borough's schools, and was recently awarded specialist science status, to much acclaim.

However, apparently not everyone is happy with this, and a website, called www.voiceofheathlands.co.uk' has been set up by an anonymous group, who claim to be students, but are only contactable by email.

I tried to get to that website, of course I did, but got no result. Maybe if you click that link you'll get luckier.

What is more, googling for Heathlands School didn't even clarify for me exactly which school this is. Not this one, I'm assuming. And certainly not this one.

They say that their aim is to ask questions, criticise and flag up issues which they feel are of concern at the school.

It is unclear, however, whether the website is a genuine attempt to get across students' views, or whether it is merely a half-term prank.

Meaning, I presume, that "This is local London" doesn't know who to ring, or does, but isn't getting any answers. I can tell them a guess/answer: neither exactly, and both, a little bit, I daresay. What it most definitely is is politics. "Flag up issues". That's politics-speak for grab hold of some problems and shout about them, thereby making them worse and very possibly insoluble.

Hounslow Local Education Authority has refused to comment on the website.

Don't know what's hit them, in other words. Website? Website? What's that? What do we do? How can we close it down? Ought to be a law against it, blah blah blah. Say nothing. We must have a meeting, and then say nothing more eloquently.

The authors of the website claim to have set it up because: "We felt it was about time to do something, and raise our voice against the wrongs we saw.

Like I say, politics. "Voice". "Voice" means poltiics, every time.

"Through experience, we knew that talking to the school, through the school council, would achieve nothing, so we looked for a more powerful means to bring our message forward."

The point about a website is that you don't need anyone's permission to say what you want to say. You don't have to get it past any editor, who may have fishes of his own to fry. And there is not a lot of expense involved.

And everyone else can ignore you, or of course start their own website and say you're prats.

Their main complaints, which are posted on the website, are that the specialist status is making the school selective, rather than open for all.

They also criticise the political leanings of their teachers, and an assembly on the benefits of Margaret Thatcher's leadership, and cast a sceptical eye over the relationship the school has with local multi-national pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

Which certainly makes this sound like a lot more than a mere "half-term prank". Interesting that these clearly left-wing websiters at least perceive the teachers to be – or try to present them as – Thatcherites. I wonder what they really are. My guess is, they gave Thatcherism a respectful look-in, in some school discussion/debate they organised. They refused to present a united front of wishy-washy leftism. That would be my guess. But that could be quite wrong, and maybe these teachers are indeed gung-ho pro-capitalists. If so, hurrah! This will be even more fun.

Regarding the specialist school status, and the school, as a whole, they claim: "Many students feel that they are ignored, and have no way of channelling their views.

"Most students on the school council feel it is a puppet organisation.

Well, not an organisation that the school's actual bosses will allow to take over the school, that's for sure.

"The school used to be so proud of being unselective."

Not all of it, evidently. Otherwise, why the change? Maybe, they were just so good that thousands more people suddenly wanted to send their kids there, and they had to choose, because they didn't have enough room for everyone, whereas before, anyone could come.

The issues surrounding GSK were: "The school's close relationship with GSK is looked down upon by the majority of pupils in the upper years of the school.

"The introduction of Lucozade into the school canteen blatantly suggests that the school has some kind of agreement with GSK, which produces Lucozade, which it is not open about."

They continued: "Also, we have complained for many years, through the school council, that we have trouble affording the food in the canteen.

"This has always been ignored; prices continue to rise, and we are told it is a matter which the school has no influence over, due to the private catering company setting prices.

"We would like to know why the school has the influence to introduce Lucozade, but cannot make the food affordable?"

The students also raised concerns that there were now plasma screens in reception, a lot of extra CCTV cameras around the site and a painted tennis court, which has little benefit'.

Politics, politics, politics. What did I tell you? Not that they don't have a point. Maybe on this matter, they do. If the real agenda of GSK is to sell Lucozade, that is a bit tacky, I think.

However, they did admit that: "Heathlands is a good' school, which achieves some of the best public exam results in the area, and has a highly-respected reputation.

"The exam results have a lot to do with the commitment and dedication that the staff show towards pupils."

So, Thatcherite bastards and committed and dedicated teachers. Or are the teachers divided between these two groups? I'm guessing not, or they would have said this.

No one was available to comment from Heathlands School at the time of going to press.

And they don't know what's hit them either.

It will be interesting to see if this story goes anywhere. Maybe I should try to help turn Heathlands School into a Global Focus of Fascination, as per Cecile Dubois.

But anyway, fascinating. What an interesting mixture of things going on here. As with the previous post, material for many novels.

I support - and will seek to provide aid and comfort to - both sides in this row. I support under-age trouble-making websites and Thatcherite schoolteachers.

But sadly, I fear that the shut-down of the website is permanent. Those teachers knew at once who was behind it, and threatened expulsion if they kept on with it. It's over, in other words. If so, shame.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:12 AM
Category: PoliticsSelectionThe Internet
[0] [0]
May 31, 2004
Cosby gets a mention in the Independent

I see that the Independent has done a piece about that Bill Cosby speech:

Scholars of race issues in the United States have a new text to ponder, from Bill Cosby, arguably the country's most beloved black entertainer and an icon of the African-American community. Its message was harsh: Poor black people – or some of them – are "knuckleheads" who mangle the English language.

Two weeks ago, Mr Cosby criticised the black community in a speech in Washington DC to mark the 50th anniversary of Brown v The Board of Education, the court ruling that led to the desegregation of schools.

He said that after all the sacrifices earlier generations made to win racial equality in America, there were blacks today, in the poorer class, who let those pioneers down. "The lower economic people are not holding up their end of the deal," he said. "These people marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education and now we've got these knuckleheads walking around."

I wonder how much the Internet contributed to this story getting an airing in the British press.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:57 PM
Category: Politics
[2] [0]
May 08, 2004
Natalie Solent on Zimbabwe and its schools: "The dragon is eating its own tail …"

Natalie Solent links to this story:

Zimbabwe renewed its offensive against "racist" private schools yesterday by arresting headmasters and members of governing bodies, who are accused of raising fees without permission.

Teachers and others in the private sector went into hiding as the government warned a delegation of concerned parents: "We will do to you what we did to the white farmers, and we will take over your schools."

Says Natalie:

The dragon is eating its own tail: 90% of the children in these schools are black, and include the children of members of the cabinet, including Mugabe himself.

I wrote about the cricket manifestation of this process for Samizdata yesterday.

Not good.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:33 AM
Category: AfricaPolitics
[0] [0]
April 20, 2004
Scott Wickstein on school and nationalistic feeling in Japan

Yes, an interesting posting over at Samizdata about a row in Japan about the compulsory respects that must now be paid to some (very controversial) symbols of Japanese nationhood, in Japan's schools. So far, over 200 teachers have rebelled.

Scott quotes at length from this article.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:35 PM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
April 16, 2004
Headscarves non - bandannas okay

Yes, another foray into a foreign language here at Brian's Education Blog.

This probably won't cause nearly as much fuss as the original ban, but it may be a rather neat solution:

Paris-AP - France is set to ban Muslim headscarves from public schools this fall, but may allow students to wear bandannas instead.

The education minister tells French radio the bandannas "may not be conspicuous." In January, the former education minister said bandannas would fall under the ban.

Some Muslim girls wear bandannas to cover their hair – an alternative to the traditional head scarf. Some girls feel the bandannas make it easier to blend in to the crowd.

France's president signed the measure into law last month in an effort to maintain the tradition of secularism in the classroom. It bans what French officials call "conspicuous" religious symbols from public schools.

France's president signed the measure into law last month in an effort to maintain the tradition of secularism in the classroom. It bans what French officials call "conspicuous" religious symbols from public schools.

The ban has drawn outrage from Muslims in France and abroad. They say it mostly targets their religion.

I guess it all depends what you mean by conspicuous.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:18 PM
Category: Politics
[0] [1]
Zambia says education is not a fundamental human right

This makes an agreeable change from the usual guff:

Education minister Andrew Mulenga yesterday insisted that education was not a fundamental human right according to the Zambian constitution.

The trouble – one of the troubles – with calling education a "fundamental human right" is that it then becomes the obligation of others to educate you, and you can just sit there with your arms folded and wait for it to just be poured into you. Calling it a human right undermines the notion that education might be something which is best achieved by being actively pursued rather than merely poured into a passively open mouth.

Good for the Zambian constitution.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:00 PM
Category: AfricaPolitics
[1] [1]
April 12, 2004
The NUT has its annual moan

The newspapers and TV are full of stories about how angry the teachers are. This puts it all in perspective:

Like the Grand Old Duke of York, Doug McAvoy, in his 15 years as general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, has repeatedly marched his troops to the top of the hill and then marched them down again.

Under his direction and leadership, the biggest teaching union has religiously opposed every education initiative introduced by both the Tory and Labour governments.

Delegates who give up their Easter break to attend the annual conference - the union's "supreme policy-making body" - have always reserved their special venom for national tests, school league tables, performance-related pay, academic selection, and Ofsted inspections.

For the past 15 years, every conference has climaxed with a series of votes for industrial action on one or more of these issues. On every occasion, the media - usually starved at Easter of domestic news - have helped fan the flames with headlines promising imminent classroom chaos.

Yet in all the 15 years of Mr McAvoy's tenure, the NUT has never once taken national industrial action - a record that fills this latter-day duke not with dismay but pride. For the fact is that everyone who attends the conference enters a virtual world.

The 900 or so delegates, most of whom revile New Labour, know that their resolutions will be rejected by the great majority of the union's 250,000 members, but they pass them just the same.
Mr McAvoy knows that the union's influence on governments of any hue is, and always has been, negligible, yet he presses his case with undiminished enthusiasm.

And the media know that the conference is a charade, yet they - we - report its doings as if they really mattered.

Yes, that makes sense. I confess that I had been wondering what all the hoo-hah about a possible teachers' strike was all about. Not much, it would seem.

Not being keen myself on "national tests, school league tables, performance-related pay, academic selection, and Ofsted inspections", you might expect me to sympathise with these rebellious NUT folks. But I hate all that rigmarole because I hate nationalised industries, and that is inevitably the kind of thing that nationalised industries consist of. They are inevitably either cursed with lots of overpaid drones or with lots of over-managed drudges, but also with bureaucratic procedures that offer no automatic means of knowing which is which or who is who. To solve each problem inevitably results in the exacerbation of the other problem. The point about markets is that they at least provide some clue as to whether you are contributing as much as you are being paid or not.

These teachers insist on the perpetuation of nationalised education. They abominate the idea of a total educational free market. They just don't like the politicians telling them what to do, because they regard themselves as all being over-managed drudges. But they would, wouldn't they?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:12 PM
Category: Politics
[1] [0]
April 11, 2004
Faking the market

The problem is that people move to houses in the catchment areas of good schools. Lots of parents want their kids to go to a few good, but oversubscribed, schools. An Conservative Education Spokesman Tim Yeo is floundering.

Mr Yeo's suggestion that schools could be prevented from using proximity to a school to determine places would mean that popular schools would have to find other ways to choose from hundreds of families seeking a few dozen places.

Doug McAvoy, NUT general secretary, suggested that headteachers would have to "pull names out of a hat".

Mr McAvoy said that it raised the prospect of people who had homes beside good schools having to drive their children to less good schools that could be miles away.

"Parents are not going to like that," said Mr McAvoy.

And in particular middle class parents who have taken out huge mortgages to get near to a desirable school are unlikely to be keen on such a scheme.

But Mr Yeo appeared to contradict what would be a highly controversial proposal by also saying that schools would be allowed to decide their own admission rules.

That would mean schools being able to continue using distance from the school as grounds for admission - which would mean that better-off parents could still buy into catchment areas.
Mr Yeo emphasised that the pupil passport proposals were about expanding choice, particularly for families living in deprived areas.

"I want all parents to have the kind of choice which at present is only available to those who can afford to choose where they live," he said.

Not being fascinated by the pronouncements of politicians about education, I may have got this all wrong. But it seems to me that Yeo's policy will only work properly if popular schools are allowed to expand, and if it is also accepted that unpopular schools might close, if they persist in being unpopular. But since expansion takes time, any expansion plan is by its nature a risk, and the possibility of your school disappearing is also a risk. And why would the people in charge of schools take such risks unless there is the prospect of profit. For as long as these schools are run by people on fixed salaries that don't increase all that dramatically even if their school gets very popular, why would they take such risks? And if they wouldn't, then this means that there is this vast mob of parents chasing a fixed number of popular school places, and the unpopular schools stay in "business" (the inverted commas being because it isn't really business at all) simply so that there are enough places for everyone.. Which is pretty much the situation we have now. Yeo wants to fake some of the aspects of a free market, while omitting to include various other essential features. And since that would have daft consequences, he wants actually to restrict other seemingly market-like activity, such as schools deciding who they let in. Like I say, floundering.

Or am I missing something? It wouldn't surprise me a bit if I was. It's only politicsand I do not give this my full attention.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:10 PM
Category: Politics
[1] [0]
April 07, 2004
All the world's a classroom …

I have just done a posting at Samizdata entitled Anti-Americanism as teacher testing which may be of interest to readers here, in which I make use of a classroom analogy to explain (at least part of) the current wave of anti-Americanism that the world is now indulging in/suffering from.

The piece isn't really about classrooms at all, but I do deviate a little into education theory, concerning the claim (mostly bogus I think but in some cases true) that "children need limits".

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:18 PM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
April 05, 2004
The Guardian on Conservative education policy

Here is a useful, as opposed to snide and Guardian-readerish, summary of Conservative Party education policy. Their opposition to university fees …

On universities, meanwhile, the traditional Tory line of slimming down state involvement is reversed: the party is committed to abolishing fees, which inevitably means the state being more involved.

… is highlighted, quite reasonably, and it sticks out like a sore thumb.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:22 PM
Category: Higher educationPolitics
[0] [0]
April 01, 2004
The inspectors call

In the latest issue of Prospect, Philip Collins writes about the public sector generally, and Ofsted inspections in particular:

The better regulation task force recently asked government to tell it how many regulators now existed because it was struggling to count them. No doubt there could be fewer of them. And, of course, the inspectorate has never been exactly popular with professionals. David Bell, the chief inspector of schools, has recently responded to criticism by saying that Ofsted needs to become more rigorous in its methods, to drop in at shorter notice and leave well-performing schools alone. Inspection in the future will be less burdensome, less intent on naming and shaming and more directly concentrated on dispersing good ideas. This change of focus is possible partly because Ofsted's initial work, attacking entrenched failure, has been a success. Its alarming report on reading standards in London was the catalyst for the national literacy strategy in 1998. Ninety per cent of schools now show satisfactory improvement between their first and second inspection. The proportion of 16 year olds who obtained no GCSEs above grade D has fallen every year since 1994, when inspections were introduced. For all the anguish that Ofsted inspections create, most teachers would prefer to reform the system rather than abolish it. And the information provided is indispensable for parents. Britain probably now has the most transparent schools system in the world. As David Bell said recently: "It is easy to forget what the education system was like without the publication of examination and test results."

Well, that's one way of looking at the public sector. I am of course a public sector pessimist, but Collins writes throughout his piece as if the right (instead of wrong) new procedures, the right (instead of wrong) new reforms, the right (instead of wrong) new initiatives, will finally make it all work well. At one point, for example, he even lists some massive spending increases as prima facie evidence of improvement, when for those of us who oppose the whole idea of a large and active public sector the ever increasing cost of the thing as all part of what a catastrophe it is.

Collins is a sort of friend, in the sense that he is a very good friend of a very good friend, and I therefore wish I could say that I liked his article more than I did.

I take friends, and therefore friends of friends, seriously, not just for their own sake, but as sources of information. I pick up some of my best postings at social gatherings, when trusted individual friends report to me on individual experiences which I can pretty much guarantee are true, and one of the more vivid such recollections I gathered recently was from my friend John Washington. He works at what it is most definitely a good school, by practically any way you care to measure these things. Certainly the parents involved think it's good, or they wouldn't be paying the quite large fees. Yet Ofsted insists on an elaborate inspection of this place every few years.

When I last spoke to John, they had just been having such an inspection. He and all his colleagues had been filling in lots of forms about their pre-prepared written "lesson plans", even though this not a procedure which John actually follows; he just turns up and teaches.

A few things I recall in particular from what John said. One, his guestimate of what all this was costing was "around £40,000 I suppose". Two, the school had to pay this. Three, the amount of paperwork involved filled, if I recall John's hand gestures accurately, about half a room.

Who the hell is going to read this report? And what possible purpose does it serve? It seems to me that inspections like this embody the same error that Philip Collins himself makes in his Prospect article, namely the belief that if enough things are done, and (in this case) if enough "information" is gathered, eventually the gatherers will chance upon the perfect system (in this case of state education). Actually, the endless and ever more expensive search by bureaucrats for systemic perfection is one of the major problems of the system, and will go on being for as long as the search persists.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:04 PM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
March 22, 2004
Centralisers to be sacked - but will centralisation diminish?

The government is continuing to do something about education. Now the something that it is doing is that it is going to sack a lot of the people whom it had previously hired to do all its previous somethings:

Did the Budget signal a change in the government's attitudes to schools and colleges?

Are ministers about to trust schools and teachers to do their own thing? Is there about to be a bonfire of targets?

The decision to give more money directly to head teachers while, at the same time, cutting the number of jobs in the ministry could certainly be spun into a message which suggest that the days of "Whitehall knows best" are over.

It was certainly a bad day for the staff of the Department for Education and Skills: 31% of them will lose their jobs by 2008. That is 1,460 fewer headquarters civil servants.

If they could all be retrained as teachers - preferably of maths, IT or foreign languages - Gordon Brown would have made a useful contribution to solving the teacher shortage too.

I can't see these people ever wanting to be teachers. They, more than anyone, know what torments the government now heeps on teachers for they now do the heeping.

Here's my prediction. The targets and initiatives will remain in place. But, it will now be even more impossible for schools to get straight answers from the DfES about whether the DfES agrees that your school has met these targets and done its duty by these initiatives, and thus whether your school is therefore entitled to the money which meeting these targets and acting on these initiatives ought theoretically to entitle it to. And once the DfES has finally agreed that you are entitled to the money, there will be even more agonisingly prolonged delays than there are now before you actually do get the money.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:03 AM
Category: Politics
[3] [0]
March 12, 2004
Modern education for Muslims and for women in the Subcontinent

Here are two stories involving Muslims being urged to embrace "modern" education. Here's an Indian BJP man urging Muslims to get educated (and join the BJP):

Seeking to diospel the general perception that BJP was "anti-minority", Joshi said "the mere fact that the Muslims are less in number than the Hindus in the country does not make them a minority. The community can contribute as much as anybody in economic development if they take up modern education in a big way."

Funny. I thought that is what a minority is. Perhaps Mr Joshi could use a little more education himself.

And here's a Pakistani politician pushing women's education:

"Sindh government is anxiously working for promotion of cause of education, raise the academic standard and universalisation of education in the province." He was talking to a delegation of edducational experts, teachers, intellectuals and journalists of Sindh who met him at Chief Minister House here Wednesday.

Presumably "universalisation" means educating females as well.

Politics is only politics. But these kinds of pronouncements are bound to have consequences, if not immediately among educators and bureaucrats, then in the minds of the next generation of Muslims and women.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:13 PM
Category: IndiaPolitics
[1] [0]
March 09, 2004
The threat to regulate home educators recedes (for now) – because it wasn't child abuse after all

Where would I be without helpful emailers? (See also: immediately below.)

One of my many unpaid research assistants, Tim Haas, emails me with update news from the BBC about the recent threat to regulate Home Schooling.

Here is the original scare story that this all refers to.

Says Tim:

Of course the headline and subhead ignore the real story - that the welfare manager who called for more stringent regulation because of a case of home educator abuse was completely wrong - but the rest of it isn't so bad.

Indeed. Sample quote from the new BBC story:

A leading education welfare manager has apologised for stating wrongly that a child, who died from natural causes, had been subjected to abuse.

Jenny Price, general secretary of the Association of Education Welfare Managers, said she regretted that the information, published in good faith, had been incorrect.

And, having had complaints from home educators, Mrs Price says it is clear some education authorities "do not fully understand the home education ethos".

You can almost hear the angry phone calls, can't you? Phrases involving "fingers" and "burnt" suggest themselves, or even other phrases involving "stick" and "hornet's nest".

I can't remember when I said it, but I definitely did say, here, some time or other ago (yes – I said it here), that the Home Education "commmunity" (which really is something of a community) is too dangerous a beast to be simply steamrollered by the state education machine. If Home Education was at all severely messed with, the politics of this would be horrendous for the messer, I think.

Here's what I put here on May 12 2003, apropos of whether Home Ed might ever spread to France. I apparently talked with someone about how …

… any government which took on the home-schoolers of Britain would have got itself the Political Enemies from Hell. Think of all those terrifyingly bright children who'd overrun morning television. Consider the fact that many home-schoolers have considerable demonstrating experience. I may not hold with their political views about war, peace, etc., but these people do know how to lay on a good demo and to mobilise the media. And they must be, almost by definition, among the most intellectually self-confident people around.

Of course I hope that isn't just wishful thinking, but I really do think that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:02 PM
Category: Home educationPolitics
[2] [1]
March 06, 2004
Why Tim Worstall likes the latest Conservative education policy announcement

I like the idea of daily postings, and I even like them at the weekend. There is something satisfying about an uninterrupted posting record. But what to put today?

Well, this morning I encountered yet another policy initiative here, but this one is different. It is from the Conservatives, and it just might do some good, if only by making the people who ought to be suffering to suffer.

But I thought about it a bit and decided that the political implications were at least as interesting as the educational implications, so I said what I had to say about this at Samizdata rather than here.

But then I wanted to say here that I'd said all this there, as is my wont here, and that ought to involve me saying in more detail why I liked the sound of this policy. Basically what it is is education vouchers, dressed up as something else. Funding follows parental choice. Popular schools get more money and expand. Unpopular schools get less and wither away. That kind of thing. Good idea, I think. For why: see all my previous posts here since this blog began.

Luckily a commenter called Tim Worstall has commented in more detail, and says the kind of thing I had in mind better than I could. Quote:

You leave out some other implications of the policy: vouchers will quite obviously not pass through the LEA's : at one bound the system will be free of a bureaucracy that swallows 30% of all input. This has the interesting side effect of making state education equally funded with private at £5,000 or so a year per pupil (at the level of the school), without higher central government spending. And even more: removing education spending from local council budgets (where it currently rests along with the LEA's ) goes a long way to making local taxation more reasonable and responsive to local spending.

There will of course be an outcry from the LEA staff as the implications sink in, that they're all going to be out of a job soon, and yet there is even a solution to that inherent in the cunning plan. The number of LEA employees with teaching credentials is within a fag paper of those teaching posts unfilled by a shortage of trained graduates.

So, real choice in schooling, abolition of a bureaucracy, solve the teacher shortage, end the "resources" crisis in state education and go at least halfway to getting a handle on council tax.

Maybe my old flatmate will actually get re-elected, into Govt this time, and I can look forward to some falconeration? Maybe just the odd quango post to start with? Usual rules, all meetings held standing up, pay of those attending publicly calculated minute by minute, any decision costing more by that meter to take than is at stake immediately made by the Chairman and, most important, a sunset clause.

For the benefit of Zanzibarian (and such like) readers of this, "LEA" stands for "Local Education Authorities". But what does that bit about his old flatmate mean? Maybe he will explain in a further Samizdata comment.

Anyway, as the American blog-commenters say: what he said.

I did some googling, and I rather think that Tim Worstall must be this guy.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:29 PM
Category: Free market reformsPolitics
[1] [2]
March 03, 2004
The greatest ever shake-up in state education since the last greatest ever shake-up in state education three weeks ago

This government does love a good shake-up, doesn't it?

This time they want a six-term school year, so students can do their exams a bit sooner and apply to universities a bit sooner, which will apparently help.

There has to be an easier way to arrange that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:11 PM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
March 01, 2004
The OFT isn't

The independent schools are getting grief from the "Office of Fair Trading". Perry de Havilland comments here.

This brings to mind that old chestnut of a complaint about government interference in markets. If you have lower prices than your competitors, you are "undercutting" them and indulging in unfair competition. If you charge more than your competitors, you are indulging in predatory pricing. If you charge the same as your competitors, you are indulging in collusion.

The complaint this time is that independent schools are colluding.

The Office of Fair Trading is nothing of the kind. Independent schools should stay independent, and should be allowed to charge whatever they like for their services. If they all get together and agree to the same price, that should be their right. If you think they are all overcharging, then set up a school and undercut them yourself. The only morally decent way to interfere in a market is to participate in it. Otherwise, butt out.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:49 PM
Category: Politics
[1] [0]
February 27, 2004
Checking up on home educators

I have a busy afternoon ahead of me, preparing for my Brian's Last Friday meeting tonight, but Julius Blumfeld, to whom thanks, has just emailed me with the link to this, from the BBC:

Some parents claim they are educating their children at home to hide the fact they are abusing them, welfare officers say.

The Association for Education Welfare Management has asked the Children's Minister, Margaret Hodge, for the power to check up on home educators.

It says the forthcoming Children's Bill is a good opportunity to change the current practice.

Home educators regard the move as offensive and unnecessary.

It was only a matter of time. Just what will this "checking up" end up amounting to, I wonder?

Let me see if I can quickly dig out a posting here of me prophecying that something along these lines would be happening some time soon.

Well, how about this? - not from me but from Julius, on January 16th 2003:

Yet as more parents home educate their children, it will become increasingly visible. And as that happens, the pressure will grow for the State to "do something" about "the problem" of home education. The pressure will come from the teaching unions (whose monopoly it threatens). It will come from the Department of Education (always on the lookout for a new "initiative"). It will come from the Press (all it will take is one scare story about a home educated ten year old who hasn't yet learned to read). And it will come from Brussels (home education is illegal in many European countries so why should it be legal here?).

Not bad.

The pattern is the same with home education as it is with everything else. Something goes wrong, in the context of harmless, legal activity X. Therefore everyone – not just wrongdoers but everyone – doing X gets screwed around from now until the End of Time by the government.

Child abuse is already illegal. The way to stop it is to punish it as and when it is detected. The way to detect it is for neighbours to keep an eye and an ear out for it. The idea that harassing people like Julius Blumfeld and his family is going to improve anything except the salaries of the harassing classes is absurd.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:33 PM
Category: Home educationPolitics
[1] [2]
February 17, 2004
Smaller schools in the USA being left behind?

I have a piece on an educational theme over at Samizdata, in connection with this New York Times story. It's about a somewhat tactless libertarian economist, who may nevertheless have done something to improve education in his home town.

As usual at Samizdata, the comments are now piling in, several of them saying that the economist, whom I defended, is a pillock, for trashing his own neighbours in a magazine, no matter how obscure.

But this comment particularly intrigued me, about the – presumably unintended – consequences of the "No Child Left Behind" program that President Bush has introduced.

An American View

Given the "no child left behind" with its requirements for validation (= testing) teachers seem to have little control over curriculum and "teaching" is geared towards passing the next test with little concern for "education." All the paperwork that's related seems to be especially difficult to keep up with in the smaller schools in states like Montana, Wyoming, etc. leaving the schools in danger of loosing monetary support from Big Brother, effectively killing them.

There seems to be some scattered trend towards the local citizenry giving up and supporting education themselves but it doesn't appear to be very widespread. The U.S. Dept. of Education seems to have suggested recently that some of these problems can be "worked out." One can only wonder what that means.

Any further comments on that? I leave it to you to decide whether to put them in the peace and quiet of here, or the monkey-fight that Samizdata comment threads often become.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:56 PM
Category: Politics
[1] [1]
February 05, 2004
Politics is hurting primary education in Kenya

And why wouldn't it? It hurts most other things it touches.

From allafrica.com:

Free schooling has compromised the quality of education in primary schools, a new study says.

Although the programme, introduced in January last year, has increased enrolment, the quality of teaching and learning has declined due to inadequate facilities.

According to an unpublished study by ActionAid (Kenya), many parents and teachers have complained about a serious decline in tuition due to class overcrowding and a lopsided teacher-pupil ratio.

The study, which sought to assess the impact of the free primary education on selected pastoralist communities, attributes the problems to the fact that it was hurriedly introduced to fulfil a pre-election pledge by Narc.

Funny how you always seem to end up getting what you pay for.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:58 PM
Category: PoliticsPrimary schools
[4] [0]
December 09, 2003
Sprinkling in the Gus Van Sant to get your article against school compulsion published in the NYT

Joanne Jacobs has more comment on that NYT piece by Emily White about e-schooling which I also linked to on Sunday.

Commenting on this kind of thing:

Yet it is also true that there is a beauty in high school: those long, exhausting hours full of other kids, everyone trying to interpret one another. It's a beauty that Gus Van Sant evokes in his new Columbine-inspired film, ''Elephant'' -- kids break dancing and taking pictures and making out, even as the school day is headed for darkness.

... JJ says:

Some students like the social interaction of school; others can't handle it or prefer not to or go to schools where the danger is too dangerous to be beautiful.

I see why I've been unable to break into the New York Times Magazine. I lack the right mentality.

Quite so. When I read those bits about Gus Van Sant I thought, yes, Emily White has indeed got the right mentality that you need to smuggle anti-school-compulsion anti-government-meddling stuff into the New York Times, and good on her. You nod towards matters artistic, of the sort that Middle America wouldn't have heard of or wouldn't approve of if it did hear of them, but concede nothing of substance.

It's true. Many kids do enjoy their schools. So admit it, and let that be the bit where you sprinkle on a dash of Gus Van Sant, and making sure also to splash in the word "Columbine" itself, which as we all know is an issue which proves beyond doubt that everyone in the world should vote Democrat and read the New York Times every day for ever. It could well be that those very paragraphs clinched it for this article getting published by the NYT.

(Actually, Columbine is the case against compulsory schooling and government meddling in hundred foot high flaming letters, in about five distinct ways, but simply to mention Columbine is to score NYT brownie points. We're talking about a conditioned editorial reflex here, not a conscious thought process.)

But, as Joanne Jacobs agrees, what White's article actually says is that many kids don't like regular schooling, and that if that's so they shouldn't have to submit to it, and they don't have to submit to it.

I wonder what Gus Van Sant thinks about that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:01 PM
Category: CompulsionPolitics
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November 28, 2003
Seeing the educational world in Thailand

Thailand may not be a grain of sand exactly, but look at its education controversies, and you do see the entire educational world writ smaller.

From the Straits Times:

BANGKOK – At the heart of the rejection by King Bhumibol Adulyadej is a transition from a very conservative, typically Asian system of education to a globally competitive system.

The Bill sent back by the King contained several errors described as technical, with most arising out of confused terminology.

With the career paths of some 500,000 government teachers at stake, those technicalities could have turned out to be critical, which is why the Bill was rejected.

The administration has admitted its error, and the Bill has been killed. Legislators and their committees will go back to the drawing board when Parliament reopens after its three-month recess, which began this week.

While there was unnecessary haste, too little consultation, and overconfidence on the part of the ruling party in pushing through the Bill, there was no sinister intent.

The Bill was supposed to decentralise the system and restructure the work force – teachers – according to skills, competence and seniority. But 500,000 teachers constitute a substantial body of people, and many among them were district education officials worried that the proposed structure in the Bill made their jobs redundant.

Quite naturally, they lobbied the King in a petition against the Bill. Whether this had a bearing on the Palace's decision is something the public may never know.

The rejection of the Bill thus has no bearing on political stability, other than the fact that it is a loss of face for the government which has been shown up in this instance to be, at the least, mildly incompetent and, at the worst, overconfident and therefore sloppy, given its superior position in Parliament.

But the controversy is a reflection on the critical nature of the change being sought.

As in many countries, in Thailand's private schools, quality education is available to those who pay for it.

In the kingdom's public schools, the traditional teacher-disciple relationship is still very entrenched, with the teachers' authority unquestioned even on academic issues. This lack of debate does not breed creative competitiveness.

Also, in today's globalised world, working knowledge of English is an asset.

With the school system largely in Thai, English skills are rudimentary among many who go through the government system.

As noted by the Asian Development Bank in its report this year, the Thai education system lags behind that of others in the region, especially in science and an area crucial for national competitiveness – creative problem-solving.

And in an indication of the nature of the stakes, a mere three weeks ago Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra replaced his education minister with Adisai Bodhiramik, a former commerce minister who is considered more capable of pushing reform.

Same old story in other words, with only the usual Asian tweaks, to the effect that children pay too much attention to their teachers in state schools rather than too little, and that state schools are in trouble because they don't teach enough English. Otherwise: private success public failure, not enough science, concern about global competitiveness, entrenched teacher and bureaucratic interests and consequent political grief, despite a dominant governmental position politically, as this politician turns out to be better than that one at "pushing reform" – it's all familiar stuff.

I tried to pick out the best paragraphs of this story to illustrate the point about how familiar it will all seem to people thousands of miles away from Thailand, but it was all so relevant to this theme that I ended up copying and pasting the entire thing.

Do they use the word "initiative" in Thailand, I wonder?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:42 AM
Category: Politics
[2] [0]
November 18, 2003
Summer camps

Oh goodee, David Miliband has had another idea about how to harass teachers and complicate everyone's lives:

Every child could be offered a place at US-style summer camps, it emerged today.

Ministers believe the move could fire enthusiasm for school and build youngsters confidence.

Three pilot projects which ran this summer were deemed successes, the Department for Education and Skills said.

Now Schools minister David Miliband is poised to launch the scheme nationwide following further analysis next month.

Natalie Solent is not impressed:

… A pilot scheme was successful and so they are all convinced that a burst of wholesome exercise and outdoor living will send the young lads and lasses home flushed and happy for some reason other than the usual Ecstasy tablet / successful shoplifting expedition / fornication.

So we're back to ten mile runs and outdoor living, eh? What's the betting that next year's miracle cure is the long-neglected educational virtue of cold showers.

These poor deluded innocents never seem to figure out that experimental pilot schemes frequently succeed because they are pilot schemes; i.e. new and not offered to everybody. Remember Home-School Contracts? When some head teacher first thought up that wheeze it probably did work well. Gosh, thought the kids and the parents, a contract, we better take this seriously. But once every child in the country gets one in his school bag at the end of the first day back it becomes just another bit of paper to sign.

Wise words. Some good may come of this idea. More harm. Huge expense. Oh, and crooks organising camps that turn out not to be, while the kids stay at home and the parents get their cut of the swag. Just you wait. If I am wrong, I like to think I'll have the decency to link back to this and admit it. If I'm right, you can count on me linking back.

The sad thing is that instead of spending his life making the lives of headmasters hell, David Miliband might have made quite a good headmaster himself.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:01 PM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
November 06, 2003
Taking refuge from the possible in the impossible

Here's Ted Wragg in today's Guardian, with his plans to make all schools everywhere equally marvellous:

There is a better way. Nothing less than a massive coordinated blitz on conditions across all relevant policy areas - housing, employment, health, education - will do.

"Blitz". That's another of those continental words (to put alongside "Czar") that people resort to when their answer to failing state control is to treble it.

This article is nothing short of hysterical, in a bad way. Wragg flails about in all directions, snarling at the rich, accusing everyone who disagrees with him of "blaming the poor". He is a Professor of Education at Exeter University and a quite big cheese in the nationalised education biz. He reads more like some gibbering lunatic orating to nobody at Speakers Corner.

Here is his conclusion, by which I merely mean concluding squawk:

Giving all, not just a few, the finest and best-equipped buildings would not come amiss either. Who knows? With these assets they might even attract a few more people from the superior caste, and be able to offer children the social mix they need to stand a chance in life.

Or to translate that into another idiom: if the oiks don't mix with people of quality and thus catch a bit of their educational sparkle, they're doomed. And he calls everyone else snobbish. Why doesn't he stick to his job and try to crank out better teachers, instead of blaming everyone else? Presumably because everything he "knows" about how to do that is wrong, and he secretly knows it, this time for real.

How on earth did those Victorian poor people ever manage to learn anything?

Melanie Phillips is not impressed either:

Pinning the blame for educational underachievement on poverty is tantamount to blaming the poor for their own failure. Yet instead, he accuses those who say 'poverty is no excuse' for blaming the poor. This shows he doesn't even understand the argument. 'Poverty is no excuse' is not blaming the poor at all. It blames instead people like Wragg who have promulgated ridiculous theories which have progressively undermined the very concepts of education and of teaching, and abandoned hundreds of thousands of children to ignorance and educational failure. After all, it's not the poor who make this excuse – it's people like Wragg.

I don't really agree that Wragg is blaming the poor, any more than anyone else is. He's blaming the rich. What he is doing is underestimating the poor, which is somewhat different.

But the rest of that quote is spot on. It's partly because, I surmise, Wragg is at least still vaguely sentient enough to know that this is what people think of him, and that they have a point, that he is now such a deranged individual – a Mad Processor of Education, you might say.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:21 PM
Category: Politics
[2] [0]
November 05, 2003
Bloomberg's blunder

There's a really interesting article in the Autumn issue of City Journal about the education battles being fought by New York's Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

Together with Klein, a tough New York lawyer and formerly head of the Clinton Justice Department’s antitrust division, Bloomberg created a revamped command-and-control center, placing the several hundred administrators who survived the 110 Livingston Street purge in the Tweed Courthouse, 200 feet from City Hall, where the mayor could keep an eye on them. Bloomberg instructed the troops to focus like a "laser beam" on a single goal—improving teaching and learning in the classroom. To further that goal, Chancellor Klein began a highly publicized search for the "best practices" in classroom teaching and curriculum, an initiative he named "Children First."

The trouble is, says Sol Stern, all this commanding and controlling is being used to command and control some bad things, especially in the matter of basic literacy teaching. On that front, says Stern, what is now going on in New York is exactly what has been going on in Britain.

Which is: that although phonics has done pretty well in public debate, the anti-phonics crowd still occupy so many of the bureaucratic offices that it is often they who are charged with the task of re-introducing phonics to the curriculum, of expunging their own past influence, that is to say. This they are understandably reluctant to do. Instead, they produce curriculum and teacher guidance documents with the word "phonics" on the front, but inside it's the same old look-and-say "whole word" rubbish.

They, in the case of New York, is a lady called Diana Lam.

Notwithstanding Lam’s lackluster record, Klein gave her control over most personnel and pedagogical decisions during the planning stages of Children First, while he himself focused on the structural reforms, and during early planning meetings with superintendents, says former district superintendent Betty Rosa, Klein chaired the sessions about organizational and administrative issues, while Lam presided over those focusing on the coming changes in curricula and teaching. It was clear that Lam took the progressive, constructivist approach to most pedagogical issues. She favored superintendents who were already using "whole language" reading curricula (the anti-phonics approach), as well as outside staff developers like Teachers College professor Lucy Calkins, a leading champion of the doctrine that all children are natural readers and writers, and that therefore it is criminal for them to be drilled in "boring" phonics lessons.

When the Department of Education announced its choice of a citywide K-3 reading program called "Month by Month Phonics" in February 2003, it was clear that this was Diana Lam’s baby. It was also a perfect illustration of how truly you can’t tell a book by its cover. Though the word "phonics" appears in the title, the slim workbook contains none of the systematic instruction in how to break words into letter/sound correspondence required by the new federal standards. Instead, it offers some unconnected shreds of phonics activities in an otherwise whole-language reading program – which is why it met with enthusiastic support from New York’s phonics-hating progressive educators. The progressives were even happier that Lam had ditched a true scripted phonics program, "Success for All," that was in use (with promising results) in some of the city’s lowest-performing schools, and that would easily have qualified for federal reading funds.

By giving the appearance of using some traditional phonics instruction, Lam's chosen program disarms parents and elected officials, who increasingly have been pressuring the schools for more traditional and reliable methods of reading instruction. That seems to be the effect it had on Mayor Bloomberg, who said in his stirring Martin Luther King Day speech introducing the new citywide reforms that the K-3 reading curriculum would "include a daily focus on phonics." Since it is hard to imagine that our Republican mayor was looking for a confrontation with the Bush administration, it’s likely that Bloomberg was told by Lam or Klein, or both, that the program contained enough phonics to pass muster with the feds. Either that or no one at the Tweed Courthouse bothered to think that $240 million in federal reading funds was at stake.

Since then, Klein and Bloomberg have doubtless spent many hours, and perhaps some sleepless nights, thinking about the problem they face from Month by Month Phonics and Lam's failure to brief them properly. When the city announced its choice, alarm bells went off among the scientific consultants who had helped frame the new federal reading requirements. The experts realized that if the nation’s largest school district could pick a reading program so far from meeting the standard of "scientifically based research" – while abandoning Success for All, which did meet the standard – then the message about the new reading standards was not getting through.

The other huge problem is that all this is being imposed by a highly centralised and dictatorial new system, which makes it more difficult for dissenters – teachers or parents – to opt into different schools and do things better, and then to spread by their example the "best practice" which Mayor Bloomberg says he's so keen on, but has actually made it harder to spread.

... the authoritarian curriculum stands in contradiction to one of the city’s proudest education reforms. In a gala ceremony in September, Bill Gates announced that he was giving the city another $51 million to create 200 new small high schools and middle schools, whose fundamental premise will be that each will have a unique theme or educational approach, and each will have some degree of autonomy from the central system. Yet even as the mayor was taking Gates’s check, his education department was pressuring dozens of the city’s existing small schools (some of them already Gates-supported) to align their curricula and teaching methods with the new standardized citywide approach.

I already hate the word "initiative". I'm starting also to hate the phrase "best practice".

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:38 PM
Category: LiteracyPolitics
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November 04, 2003
Improving oral skills and breaking camels' backs

Do you get the feeling that Britain's teachers are being given lessons by London in the obvious?

Primary school pupils are to be taught how to speak and listen to each other.

Young children, more used to watching television than talking, are to be encouraged to improve their communication skills.

From next week, every primary school in England will be sent guidance on how to get children to hold discussions and listen to one another.

The curriculum watchdog, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), says improving oral skills has a "key role" in raising standards.

Supporting the "Speaking, Listening, Learning" initiative will be a pack of teaching materials, including a training video for teachers.

"Initiative". A word that strikes fear into every teacher's heart.

Seriously, although I can, just about, imagine some teachers being helped by all this palaver, I can also imagine not a few of them getting very, very angry. For some it could be the last straw.

Encouraging the children to talk to each other, to improve their communication skills, which have been damaged by them watching too much TV. Why ever didn't we think of that?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:23 PM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
October 31, 2003
"Indefensible" Abbott could have defended herself better

More on the Diane Abbott story, in the Guardian today:

The veteran campaigner for state school education Diane Abbott yesterday admitted that her decision to send her son to an independent school was "indefensible".

Commenting for the first time on her decision to send her 12-year-old son to the City of London school at the cost of £10,000 a year, the MP for Hackney north and Stoke Newington said she would not, and could not, defend the decision.

"At the end of the day, when I'm on my deathbed, would I regret having been skewered on this show at 12 o'clock at night or doing the right thing by my son?," she told the BBC's This Week programme last night.
"In my position everything you say just sounds self-serving and hypocritical, and there is no point in defending the indefensible. I know it's an indefensible position and I have spent five days not defending it – what more can I do?"

In the past, Ms Abbott has been critical of decisions made by her Labour colleagues - including the prime minister – to send their children to fee-paying schools.

Last night she said: "In Hackney schools, only 9% of black boys get five decent GCSEs against a national average of 50%. I really wasn't prepared to put my son through that system.

"I have campaigned for nearly 10 years on what happens to black children in British schools, but at the end of the day I had to put my reputation as a politician against my son, and I chose my son."

Commenting on my previous reference to this story, Paul Coulam said this, with which I agree:

The point about Diane Abbott's hypocrisy here is not so much that she sent her child to private school while arguing for state education but that she denounced both Tony Blair and Harriet Harman for not sending their children to the local comp and then went on to do precisely the same thing herself.

If I denounced you for cashing cheques from the BBC and then went and did it myself then I would certainly be a hypocrite.

But better to be this kind of hypocrite, than the kind of monster politician who sends her own child to a lousy school just to avoid admitting it. (See my first piece concerning this regularly recurring argument.)

However, before Paul Coulam says it again, she is still not getting it right. And nor is the Guardian for saying that she "admitted" that her decision was indefensible, because that implies that it was.

But Diane Abbott, in sending her child to the best school she can, is now doing the right thing, and apologising for that. Instead, she should be apologising to Tony Blair and to Harriet Harman, for having said the wrong thing about them.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:35 PM
Category: Politics
[5] [0]
October 28, 2003
Diane Abbott in the news

Also (see immediately below) at the ASI blog Alex Singleton weighs into the debate about pro-comprehensive politicians (this time it's Diane Abbott) who send their own children to private schools, as does David Carr at Samizdata.

I have already said my piece about this sort of thing here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:35 PM
Category: Parents and childrenPolitics
[2] [0]
October 21, 2003
No Child Left Behind – more on the morons who unleashed it

There's more trashing of the No Child Left Behind Act going on in the USA today, this time in the New York Times. I started having another go at it for here, but then, as so often with my specialist blogs, decided to give it the Samizdata treatment.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:48 PM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
October 17, 2003
More on Hitlerisation

Every now and again, when I sit down to do a posting for Brian's Education Blog, I end up with a posting for Samizdata.

I've just finished How the Hitlerisation of British history teaching may be saving British Independence and stuck in up there. It's far too early to say, but I think it may be a rather good piece.

I've written about this Hitlerisation thing here, at some length, but hadn't grasped the (anti) EU dimension of it all until today. It's obvious, when you think about it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:06 PM
Category: HistoryPolitics
[2] [4]
October 16, 2003
Choices that aren't

Julius Blumfeld comments on two recent and depressing news stories:

The first is a report on Conservative plans for education vouchers:

This week, the Conservative Party promised a voucher scheme for education whereby funding would follow a child. This, it said, would enable parents to spend the amount of money the government spends on each state school pupil at a school of their choice.

The party says this money could not be used towards a place at a private school, but could, for example go into a school being set up by parents or a charitable foundation.

I had to re-read that last sentence quite a few times to be sure my eyes weren't deceiving me. Yes, the Tories are proposing a vouchers scheme in which the vouchers cannot "be used towards a place at a private school". This does rather beg the question of what the point of such a scheme would be. At it happens, the exclusion of private schools is largely meaningless because most British private schools are charitable foundations, which apparently will be included in the scheme. Nevertheless, the Tories' apparent fear of mixing the words "education" and "private" in the same policy, suggests a political timidity on their part which, if they ever get power again, does not bode well for future educational reforms.

The other gruesome story is in the Independent, and is about a report from Ofsted, one of the various Quango's that controls education in Britain:

The Government policy allowing parents to choose their child's school is polarising the education system and trapping poor children in the worst schools, an official report has warned.

Weak schools often served the poorest, most vulnerable and disaffected pupils, the joint report by Ofsted and the Audit Commission concluded. The Government and local authorities should not allow unpopular schools to "sink further" by expanding popular schools to allow more children into their first-choice institution.

Note, again, the last sentence: "The Government and local authorities should not allow unpopular schools to 'sink further' by expanding popular schools to allow more children into their first-choice institution."

In other words, parents are to be given choice about where to send their children, as long as they don't have the temerity to choose a popular school, because then the rubbish schools won't have enough children attending and might then be forced to close. Well at least we now know what the Government means by "choice" in education.


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:44 AM
Category: Politics
[0] [3]
October 15, 2003
Education piece by Brian at Samizdata

I wrote a piece commenting on this article by John Clare in today's Telegraph. But Samizdata has been short of a posting or two today, and there's been more than enough here by my far more casual standards, so instead of putting it here I put it there.

Samizdata pieces on education tend to get more comments than education pieces here, so if the subject interests you (education "cuts", education directives, etc.), then keep an eye on any comments on that piece.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:47 PM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
October 14, 2003
Overeducated and uneducated voters

I blog a lot here about the impact of politics on education. Here's James Taranto writing about the impact of education on politics, in the forrm of an analysis of how education correlated with voting Democrat or Republican in the Arnie Californian Recal election.

The Democratic "base," it seems, can be found at the extreme edges of the bell curve, consisting of a small number of uneducated voters and a large number of overeducated ones.

By "overeducated" I take it he means "educated a lot", rather than "educated too much". Or then again …

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:21 PM
Category: Politics
[4] [0]
No Child Left Behind? Make that Children Being Pushed Backwards

Many months ago, on November 6th of last year, in among a long, disorganised, multi-subject posting of the sort I have long ago learned to do as five separate postings, I asked the following, of President Bush's still then much trumpetted No Child Left Behind Act:

Question. What if a good teacher stops being a teacher at all, because of not having completed and not wanting to complete an "academic major"?

Later in the same posting (if you had really dug) you would have found this, to the effect that this same Act:

… is a disaster in the making, but we are witnessing the very beginning of it, the bright shining dawn. No child left behind! Six years from now, expect the news to be about all the children being left behind, and all the further behind because of what the government is now doing.

The point being that not only did the Act say that No Children are going to be Left Behind so there. It also said that all teachers had to be Really Good, so there. The teachers who were bad at passing complicated academic type exams were themselves going to have to shape up or move out.

So today I come across this story, and I feel vindicated:

FAIRLEA, W.Va. – President Bush's No Child Left Behind education program, acclaimed as a policy and political breakthrough by the Republicans in January 2002, is threatening to backfire on Bush and his party in the 2004 elections.

The plan is aimed at improving the performance of students, teachers, and schools with yearly tests and serious penalties for failure. Although many Republicans and Democrats are confident the system will work in the long run, Bush is being criticized in swing states such as West Virginia for not adequately funding programs to help administrators and teachers meet the new and, critics say, unreasonable standards.

Bush hoped to enhance his image as a compassionate conservative by making the education program one of the first and highest priorities of his administration. But he could find the law complicating his reelection effort, political strategists from both parties say, as some states report that as many as half or more schools are failing to make the new grade and lack the money to turn things around promptly.

Phase one, in other words, has been completed. The Bright Shining Dawn bit is now over. X zillion dollars further on, in about, you know, another five years or so, it will be understood that all this Federal Lawmaking and Federal Money has actually made things worse.

I told you so, in other words, even if not so you'd notice.

I think I may be getting the hang of this education blogging thing.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:03 PM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
October 08, 2003
Education in Arnie's California

There were a couple of interesting education-relevant comments over at Samizdata.net concerning the Arnold Schwarzenneger victory in the California governorship recall election.

Cydonia said, of the hope that Arnie might make substantial public spending cuts:

Sadly I doubt that anything will change.

According to the BBC, almost half of California's budget is spent on State "education". Any politician with the slightest libertarian leanings would hack away at that, but Arnie has (again according to the BBC) pledged not to touch the "education" budget.

And fnyser replied:

Cydonia; you're right but there is a ray of hope. One can provide vouchers and charter schools without decreasing "school funding." I don't think it's impossible.

CA passed total immersion English and threw out bilingual education. All the guilty white liberals were surprised when the biggest support for that measure came from Spanish speakers: they realized speaking Spanglish was a great way to get a career as a dishwasher. There's more and more support for alternatives to public school esp. in the "minority" community so … maybe a step in the right direction.

Hasta la vista. By the way, what does "hasta la vista" mean? I realise that I have no idea.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:23 PM
Category: Free market reformsPolitics
[2] [1]
September 17, 2003
Alice says school's out

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:37 PM
Category: Home educationPolitics
[0] [0]
August 20, 2003
More on Connexions

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:45 AM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
August 18, 2003
Not the triviasphere

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:10 PM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
August 15, 2003
"… here to listen to your relationship problems …"

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

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

I dug further.

Finding someone to talk to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whereas organisations inside Government can fish at will?

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


Does anyone out there know anything about this operation?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:23 PM
Category: Politics
[3] [0]
July 16, 2003
"Facilitating" the private sector in Pakistan

More news that the educational private sector is impressing people in some surprising places:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan: July 15 (PNS) – Federal Minister for Education Zobaida Jalal Monday said that a facilitation cell will be established to facilitate private sector schools and institutions to help them in getting registered with government to resolve the row between CDA and the private schools management committee.

Presiding over a meeting with Chairman CDA Chaudhry abdul and the representatives of private schools management committee she said that government would take all necessary steps to facilitate and help the private sector in the field of education.

She maintained that private sector should be encouraged so that it can help the government in uplifting the standard of the education in the country.

Not that any of this is particularly good news for private sector education in Pakistan. When politicians talk of how they will "facilitate" and "help", and how this or that will be "encouraged", look out.

First will come money, then the nagging and the threats, then government control. I hope I'm wrong, but I fear that I am right. With luck, there won't be any money. This is the big educational advantage that the Third World now has over the First.

Much better is government indifference, because then they leave you alone to get on with it. Even better is malign indifference, because then they really leave you alone to get on with it, and are positively proud of themselves for knowing nothing about what you do. Perfect.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:35 PM
Category: PoliticsThe private sector
[2] [0]
July 14, 2003

This sounds ominous:

The school secretary is forlorn. The caretaker is beside himself with fury. Dean Hall, a school for children with special educational needs in the Forest of Dean, is to close in September 2005.

Parents marched in the street to save the school, but the Labour-run council said it was following the Government's policy of including all but the most seriously disabled or disturbed children in mainstream classes.

The local school organisation committee, which oversees admissions and places, referred the controversial closure to the Office of the Schools Adjudicator, set up under the 1998 School Standards and Framework Act.

The adjudicator, Hilary Nicolle, the former education director of the London borough of Islington, backed the council and said that it had a legal obligation to close special schools and divert the money to mainstream classes to comply with the Government's inclusion policy.

Her word is final unless the parents can find the funds to apply to the High Court for a judicial review of the decision. If the ruling stands, it could sound the death knell for hundreds of other schools under threat.

The picture is complicated by the Government's interpretation of its own laws. While inclusion remains its stated aim, ministers seem unwilling to accept that it entails the closure of special schools.

Publishing the report of her working party on the future direction of special schools last April, Baroness Ashton, the minister with responsibility for special education, told The Telegraph: "I am very worried that somehow people believe the Government's agenda is to close special schools, when it absolutely isn't."

What's going on here?

I think it is clear. The government has been reading Brian's Education Blog and has realised that state education is a Bad Idea. They want to turn Britain into a nation of home schoolers and private schoolers. They want to destroy state education, as quickly as they can. But how can they make the destruction of state education seem like a Good Idea to their barking mad backbenchers who think that state education is such a Good Thing?

One day a year or two ago, some policy advising genius came up with the answer. Why don't we close down all the specialist schools where they now do whatever they can to help children who need special teaching to make any educational headway, and who often misbehave if they don't get it? Children of this sort are not that numerous, not as a percentage. But if they can be "reintegrated" back into the "school community", and scattered in twos and threes throughout the existing state schools, the havoc they will cause and the teacher attention they will divert from the currently docile majority will be out of all proportion to their numbers.

I am a devout enemy of state education, but even I would shrink from the sheer ruthlessness needed to make a policy like this stick. That's politicians for you, I guess. Nothing if not decisive. Ever willing to break eggs to get their omelettes.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:32 PM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
July 11, 2003
"I am the very model of an Education Minister ..."

Says Rob Worsnop in a posting on the Libertarian Alliance Forum:

I found this typed-up on an old scrap of paper in my parents' house a few years ago. So not exactly topical: it refers to Neil Kinnock, in his role as Shadow Education Minister.

I am the very model of an Education Minister;
My arguments are tortuous, my motivation sinister;
But though my plans are ropy, and my reasons even ropier,
I'm laying the foundations of a socialist utopia.

I'm well aware the arguments the Tories use to blame us is
that schools without competition will foster ignoramuses.
But tolerating independent schools will be hypocrisy
since freedom's incompatible with genuine democracy.

I want to see that everyone learns socialism properly,
and this is only possible inside a state monopoly;
All schools that I don't recognise will therefore be prohibited
and any private tutors will be flogged or even gibbeted.

All middle-class morality I promise to eliminate;
Exams I shall abolish, since they certainly discriminate;
A college with a vacancy selecting its own candidate
will quickly wish it hadn't, when it finds I have disbanded it.

I'll throw away all covenants and charters international
with which I disagree, and which must therefore be irrational;
I short, in all of Europe from the Parthenon to Finisterre
I'll be the most intolerant, intolerable Minister.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:58 AM
Category: Politics
[0] [2]
June 25, 2003
"Labour has dramatically lost its reputation with voters for improving schools and education …"

Proof that Brian's Education Blog is changing the world. From today's Guardian:

Labour has dramatically lost its reputation with voters for improving schools and education in the past three months, according to the results of the June Guardian/ICM opinion poll.

Back in March, when the Guardian carried out its annual public services survey, education was the only area where the voters said they could see real improvements coming through. But the results of this month's ICM survey show that the impact of the schools funding crisis and the row over tuition fees has led to a sudden loss of confidence in the government's record on education.

The poll records a dramatic swing in its net rating on schools and education from plus two points to minus 17.

Well, to be a bit more serious, this could mean one of two things. It could mean that the public now hates the government because it realises that its entire approach – throw money at everything, and use the threat not to throw money at any particular educator if he disobeys the latest central and centralising edict-of-the-week is doomed to fail. Or it could merely mean that the public believes that chucking money about is the answer, but that the government is horrid because it is a little bit reluctant to do this, on account of money not growing on trees – while the public still thinks money does grow on trees. A lot of the latter I fear.

But what can you do? The public mostly went to these damn government schools in the first place.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:27 PM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
June 05, 2003
"Which is better?"

More on the subjectivity of educational value, from the CrozierVision May archive. Patrick is having a go at Polly Toynbee, starting with a quote from her:

Spell out what good the state does and how much more it can do.

What does she mean here? Notice, I am having to ask this with just about every line she writes. Is it because she is vague or I am being over-precise? Dunno. Anyway, I will continue on in this vein because that's the kind of guy I am.

She could mean that because the state, say, provides some schools which provide some education to some children it is therefore a good thing. But if she were saying this it would be terribly disingenuous. The real measure is how the state compares with the alternatives.

And then we get into a real problem. Because how do you make that comparison? Which is better, that ten children are educated to level 9 or that one child is educated to level 100 and the others not at all? Which is better quality or equality? This is assuming that you could ever come up with a linear scale of education - surely and impossibility.

And even then there is the whole question of whether education itself is so much better than its alternatives. Personally, I rather think that a vast number of 14-year olds would be far better off (and not just financially) by leaving school and entering the world of work.

I suppose what I am arguing is that you (and by extension government) simply cannot know what "good" is, let alone deliver it.

I don't quite go along with that last bit. It seems to me that "you", and I, and anyone else we cooperate with (such as our children) can devise a good education for ourselves, because we know each other, and because in accordance with the civilised rule that I trust we are following, any individual not satisfied may opt out (and I'd include the child in that). It's when we all decide, "by extension", that we also know what is best for people we've never met, and don't allow them to opt out, that the trouble starts. I'm sure Patrick agrees with that, but it isn't quite what he said.

Patrick is of course entirely in tune with the general spirit of this blog, which includes (but which is not exclusively devoted to) spelling out what harm the state does and how much less it should do. So apart from that one quibble: indeed.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:37 PM
Category: Politics
[1] [1]
May 22, 2003
A pictorial elephant trap

Jackie D (in her first posting on May 21) at au currant, as well as in general being very lively and worth regularly looking at, in particular has a couple of choice pictures via the telegraph and the timesonline of our beloved Education Secretary being upstaged by one of the extras. I mentioned this announcement, but missed what was clearly the big story here.

The habit now regularly perpetrated by politicians of having themselves photographed with children when announcing political schemes is not pleasant (although of course it's not new either) so it's always good to see it going wrong. Kids and animals, eh? They won't be told.

And speaking of animals, I seem to recall a Newsnight reporter that evening talking about how Clarke was too clever to get caught in an "elephant trap". So funny ears are clearly going to be a regular feature of all Clarke coverage.

(By the way, is it just me, or are individual postings at au currant hard to link to? If I'm wrong, deepest apologies, but if that's right, it ought to get sorted because this is otherwise a very promising blog. Jackie D is doing everything else right, like not being dull, like putting comments on samizdata to get noticed here in London, etc.)

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:07 PM
Category: Politics
[1] [3]
May 21, 2003
Today's big story – I don't know the story

Today's big British National Education Story is about a school in Croydon which sent its pupils home early because it couldn't afford to teach them, this being because it couldn't afford substitute teachers.

My problem is that when I see a nationalised industry resisting "cuts" by this time honoured technique, which is basically to treat the exact people for whom it all is supposedly being done with maximum and very public neglect, I smell technique rather than reality. If your job is seeing to widows and orphans and you want more money, the standard procedure is to round up a few of your saddest looking widows and most appealingly photogenic orphans, and some newspaper photographers, and chuck the widows and orphans in the gutter in front of the newspaper photographers, and stand next to it all wailing "Look what you made me do!"

Lacking detailed inside knowledge of this particular school, I have no idea whether this is grandstanding or a genuine cry for help.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:32 PM
Category: Politics
[1] [0]
April 30, 2003
Mr Clarke plays for success

This is a national education story with a difference:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:38 PM
Category: Boys will be boysPolitics
[5] [2]
April 10, 2003
This won't work

The British government is going to start up a new TV channel devoted to teachers and teaching, presumably in order to recruit more teachers.

The usual story put out by all who preside over failing policies, in this case the policy of trying to contrive more and more effective state teachers, is that "the message isn't getting across". But usually the message is getting across only too well. People just don't agree with it.

Who among us does not know that the British government is desperate to get more good people to go into state teaching, and once in, to stay in? So why don't we become state teachers? Because we don't want to, is why.

This new TV channel will cost quite a lot, and merely publicise the government's policy failures, either by being putrescent propaganda which fools nobody, or by telling the truth. Either way it will be an embarrassment.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:14 PM
Category: Politics
[1] [0]
April 04, 2003
They're starting to shout

I don't know what this story proves …

It is time to get "completely ruthless" and "take out" headteachers who are not up to the job of raising standards in their schools, the education secretary, Charles Clarke, said yesterday.

Far too many comprehensives were not doing as well as they should, he insisted, urging local education authorities and school governors to "take out" incompetent heads as soon as possible.

Mr Clarke spoke not just of schools in urban parts of England, but also of outwardly successful schools that were content to coast along. "I don't think you can say [the problem] is particularly the cities or particularly the areas of poverty, or whatever, I don't think that's true. In fact, I think some of the more pernicious complacencies are in schools which are relatively OK, in areas where they are relatively unchallenged but they don't do well enough for their children," he said.

"You've got this big, big group in the middle of schools who feel they are OK, but I'm not certain that they are driving forward as hard as they need to."

Even though the number the number of seriously incompetent heads was small, Mr Clarke stressed, they could not be allowed to remain in post. "Where the issue is the head's the problem, they must not be allowed just to go along."

... but what I think it proves – well, illustrates – is that New Labour education policy is starting to become seriously unhinged. Prescottised you might say. It has entered its manic, neurotic phase. Normal, patient, sensible, quiet-voiced policies have all failed, or at any rate have not achieved the miracles promised, and are only making the teachers angry and cynical, and neurotic themselves. So now, out comes the ministerial Big Stick, the Chopper. Mr Clarke will Get Tough, Sort Things Out. He will, that is to say, shout more frequently.

The result will merely be that many schools that are now doing an okay job – schools which are now "outwardly successful" – will also now start to descend into neuroticism.

Some people, who favour policies that are the opposite of what Mr Clarke wants, will use his latest outburst to excuse the sacking of Head Teachers who are actually doing quite a good job.

It's just the same mess only louder. I can't remember when it was exactly, but not so long ago the Ministry of Education or whatever it's now called – Department of (for?) Education and Training? – was saying that Head Teachers needed more autonomy, freedom of action, etc. etc. Now they are to have freedom of action – except that if Mr Clarke doesn't like them, he might try to have them fired.

But more portentously, it's the atmosphere, the tone of voice, the sense that the educational equivalent of Sir Humphrey is now starting to exchange meaningful looks with his colleagues when the Minister has one of his rants. That's what must be worrying everyone.

It could be that the newspaper stories which I rely on to learn about all these various initiatives (I don't read the original press releases – maybe I should, God help me) exaggerate the drama of these things. But I thought these people were supposed to be Masters of Spin. Surely if they wanted a more low-key atmosphere, they could arrange it.

Well, of course, they can't. They have a command-and-control, Prussian model of education policy. Prussianism can't improve education policy any more dramatically than it can improve education itself. When their Prussianism fails, these people are at a loss. Their job is to make things better and the spotlight is still trained on them, but they don't know what to do. It's enough to make anyone shout.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:21 PM
Category: Politics
[2] [0]
March 17, 2003
You can't have it both ways

This story is about an attempt by a London primary school head to chuck out the children of what seem to be some particularly malevolent "traveller" families has been rumbling along for some time now. It's yet further evidence of the vital importance of teachers not having to teach people they don't want to teach.

A head teacher fears for the future of his primary school after being told he must continue to teach children from two traveller families after a vicious attack on a parent in the playground.

Police have been stationed at the school gates following the violent incident, witnessed by 300 children, in which a governor was also injured.

It has left parents, pupils and staff traumatised but the local education authority has refused to move the children of the families allegedly responsible and the head teacher has been told he cannot exclude them.

Last year the Government pledged a "zero tolerance" campaign against violent parents and Stephen Twigg, the education minister, said pupils could be excluded in exceptional cases for the misdeeds of their parents. But Colin Lowther, 48, the head teacher of Southfield Primary in Ealing, west London, says he is powerless to act against the families, and parents are moving their children to other schools because of them.

The incident is alleged to have followed four months of aggression and threats from mothers and two 14-year-old girls.

A parent governor has resigned and another has transferred her daughter to another school since the attack on Tuesday last week.

This story is the crisis in domestic policy of our present British Government in a microcosm. The Government is flailing about like a spoilt child. It demands "inclusiveness", and it demands that all those whom it "includes" shall behave themselves properly or else!! It is zero tolerant, and it is infinitely tolerant.

In other settings the Government demands rising prosperity and rising taxes. It demands train fares that are "reasonably" priced, and it demands that all trains run on time, or else, without any accidents, ever ever ever!!! It demands a world class national health service costing little or even nothing at the point of use, and demands that there be no queues for its ever more chaotic services. It tells the army to be the world's social worker, but won't even buy it proper boots let alone guns.

And this is me taking it to one side and patiently explaining that reality is reality, and that there are some things you can't have. You can't spend the pocket money I gave you today on sweeties, and be able to spend the same money tomorrow on a nice present for granny. You'll only be able to buy granny a present now if I give you a present of more money first. The universe works the way it works. And telling the universe that it's not fair won't impress it one bit.

Sorry. I'm getting too political. I'll go and stand in the corner and think about what I've just said.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:07 PM
Category: Politics
[1] [0]
March 07, 2003
The swearing son

Breaking news! The son of Minister of Education Charles Clarke (he of the sticking out ears) has been supended from school for swearing at a member of the staff, who had confiscated his football. I first heard this from BBC TV, but for a written report here's what education.guardian.co.uk has to say. According to the BBC Mr Clarke said that the school "acted properly". Hard to see what else he could have said under the circumstances.

This reminds me of the ruckus that happened when the Home Secretary's son got mixed up in Drugs in some newsworthy way that I don't now exactly recall. It's fun when the political gets personal, but my better self hopes that it all blows over quickly and is forgotten, which I'm guessing it will, and will be.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:44 PM
Category: Parents and childrenPolitics
[0] [0]
February 23, 2003
Please Sir, Can I take my children on holiday?

Julius Blumfeld criticises the latest government attempt to combat truancy:

The growing trend among middle-class parents of taking their children on holiday during term time is to be tackled with on-the-spot fines, according to a report in today's Observer.

At first I thought this was to be welcomed. Sometimes it feels as though the growth of the ever more bloated Nanny State goes unnoticed by the Great British Public. But this policy, which combines in one swoop, all of the most obnoxious characteristics of modern British Government, would surely infuriate even the most torpid parents. After all -

- It is bullying. Not content with cajoling, the Government threatens criminal convictions for those who don’t comply.

- It is patronizing. Adults must obtain “permission” from other adults (i.e. teachers) to take their own children on holiday.

- It is pointless. Nobody, not even the Government, believes that taking a child on holiday or shopping during term time is likely to have the slightest adverse effect on that child’s education.

- It is mean-minded. It prevents parents from doing the sensible thing and taking holidays when fares are low and crowds are small.

- It betrays a deep distrust of people. The message it conveys is that no parents (not even the educationally-obsessed middle-classes) can be trusted with the educational welfare of their children.

- It is nakedly unprincipled. As Britain’s Education Minister, Ivan Lewis, proudly declares: “the Government would be guilty of 'double standards' if it expected its policies on truancy to apply only to disadvantaged parents who allowed their children to roam the streets”. So the reason for the new policy of criminalizing families who go on holiday is not even to improve educational standards but to protect the Government from allegations of “double standards”.

Full of naïve optimism that the new initiative would arouse the latent libertarian instincts in the British Public, I turned to the BBC's "Talking Point" column to read what people have to say on the subject.

It turns out that I was well wide of the mark. With a few honorable exceptions (David Geran – whoever you are – you are not alone!) the view seems to be that the policy is a bad idea, not for any of the reasons I thought, but because … wait for it … the Government is failing to tackle the real villains of the piece … the holiday companies who deliberately inflate their prices during school holidays.

I give up.


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:58 PM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
February 21, 2003
Government solves "boredom" problem

Another posting from Julius Blumfeld:

Some interesting news. According to School Standards Minister David Milliband speaking at a Conference on Wednesday:

Boredom is the biggest cause of pupils losing interest in school … Boredom is the bane of education. Boredom is the recruiting sergeant for disaffection, truancy and bad behaviour.

Funny that. Mr Milliband must have been speaking to Brian’s friend Sean Gabb who has this on his website:

We were given some money by the Department for Education [in 1994] to find out why children play truant. According to our findings, they do so mostly because they dislike the lessons. Those of my readers who have never been exposed to the Sociology of Education may think this an obvious answer. Before Dr O'Keeffe gave it, though, it was an answer quite absent from the literature. Every other cause imaginable had been discussed - from Original Sin to lead pollution – but never the true one.
Of course, this killed the project. The officials in the DfE wanted an excuse for having more educational welfare officers in public employment by the year 2000 than members of the armed forces; the politicians wanted an opportunity for more "Back to Basics" posturing. The O'Keeffe findings, with their unspoken and remote, but still discernable, corollary – that state education should be abolished - fitted neither agenda. Therefore, the funding was cut off.

On second thoughts, I don’t think Mr Milliband has been speaking with Sean Gabb. Mr Milliband’s solution is not to abolish state education. His solution is to spend more on it. His proposed reforms to tackle the problem of boredom include a "greater role for vocational training in schools", an "extended role for information technology” and, best of all, "longer opening hours and wider access during the holidays". Absolutely brilliant – children hate schools because they are boring. Solution? Keep the schools open for longer!

Sean Gabb for Minister of Education I say.

Julius Blumfeld

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:39 AM
Category: Politics
[0] [0]
February 17, 2003
Only Hitler will do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, there are videos.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:52 PM
Category: Boys will be boysHistoryPolitics
[0] [0]
February 13, 2003
The Omnicompetent Group delusion

The Political World seems to indulge in a regular pattern of focussing in on a particular category of people who between them will Sort Out The Mess in whatever situation is now a mess, Get A Grip, Take A Lead, until such time as this group of people are likewise revealed as being only human and just as incapable of doing the impossible as any other group of people.

But instead of recognising that no one is omnipotent or omniscient, and accepting the necessity of a free society in which no one is even pretending to be omnipotent or omniscient – because that would be too humiliating, and would involve admitting that too many disreputable people had been right all along and too many respectable people had been wrong all along – the answer to each crisis of failed omnicompetence is "solved" simply by appointing another category of persons who this time, this time, will work the miracle. These people, unlike all previous clay-footed gods, are so wondrously clever that if we give them unlimited powers, all will be well.

The most common manifestations of this delusion are the occasional outbursts of euphoria, such as gripped Political Britain in 1997 when our present government first swept to power, to the effect that the voters have at last identified an Omnicompetent Group of Politicians. Britain's voters have now just about got it clear in their heads that these particular politicians are not omnicompetent either, but, having now lost faith in the whole idea of omnicompetence (good) don't know what to do about it except be miserable (bad).

In the world of British education, the Omnicompetent Group is now called Ofsted, which stands for the Office of … what? … "st"andards in "ed"ucation? Something along those lines. Here's a story from the invaluable education.guardian.co.uk which shows the power that Ofsted now has.

A headteacher whose disappearance caused a police search ran away to the Lake District under the strain of an upcoming Ofsted inspection, it emerged yesterday.

Michael Ironmonger, 46, failed to arrive at his school, Nortonthorpe Hall in Scissett, West Yorkshire, on Monday. His wife Lesley, 43, raised the alarm and officers from three police forces spent almost two days searching the Pennines for his car.

Fears that he had been involved in an accident were dispelled when he telephoned home from Ambleside, Cumbria.

Mr Ironmonger was resting yesterday after returning to his home in Ashton-under-Lyne, Greater Manchester.

His wife said: "It's a relief to have him home. We were worried out of our minds. We didn't realise Mick was under such pressure. He was due to receive a letter from Ofsted any minute telling him when they were going to visit the school for inspection.

"It just goes to show the effect these Ofsted inspections can have. I don't think people realise how much pressure they can put teachers under."

It's actually becoming quite hard to persuade anyone to be a head teacher in Britain these days.

A few years ago, the idea was that the Head Teachers themselves were the Omnicompetent Group. That turned out not to be true, and Ofsted has now replaced them as the focus of the educational version of the Omnicompetent Group Delusion, and stories like the above will serve to reinforce the idea that Ofsted are It, and Head Teachers are not.

But what happens when Ofsted itself is likewise revealed, as it will be, as having clay feet? Give it a few years, and they too will find themselves under that special form of intense public scrutiny – more like the bitter row between lovers falling out of love than a serious policy debate – that happens when yet again, education nirvana has proved elusive and yet another Omnicompetent Group is dethroned. After all giving Head Teachers nervous breakdowns is not quite the same as making education any better, now is it?

There is a real danger that Home-Educating Parents will, eventually, any decade now, be identified in Britain as education's latest Omnicompetent Group. This is certainly the thrust of quite a lot of Home-Ed propaganda I've read.

The people who now choose to do Home-Ed, in defiance of the conventions of their time, are mostly doing amazingly well. This is not at all surprising, given the kind of people that they are. But this doesn't mean that if all parents were suddenly badgered into doing Home-Ed against their present inclinations or desires, that the results would be nearly so nirvanic. It is vitally important that Home-Ed be pushed not as the latest Omnicompetence Delusion, but merely as one version of freedom in action, with all the least-worst type disappointments that freedom involves.

If Home-Ed parents do get installed as an Omnicompetent Group, and then revealed as being unworthy of such status and dethroned, and then subject to the kind of bureaucratic oversight that's now piled upon Head Teachers, then education.guadian.co.uk will in due course be running Home-Ed disaster stories similar to the story of the wretched Mr Ironmonger.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:51 PM
Category: Home educationPolitics
[1] [0]
January 29, 2003
Andrew Wood - Adam Smith - David Friedman

An email has flooded in, from Andrew Wood, which I assume he won't mind me reproducing.

Dear Brian,

I quite often read your blogs, and generally enjoy them.

Very sporting of you, my dear chap. I almost always enjoy your emails, so much so that I often read them.

I was interested to read this remark in your latest education blog: "At the beginning of his lecture, Green quoted Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations in support of his support for the principle of state-funded education, and revealed a gaping hole in this alleged support which I didn't previously know about."

I wonder if anyone has drawn your attention to this essay by David (son of Milton) Friedman where he makes a similar remark.

Incidentally, Friedman says on his web page that he sends his children to a school where attendance at lessons is strictly voluntary and the children have a large say in how the school is run. I think it would be worth inviting him to write a piece for you about this school and how well he thinks it works. I'd certainly be interested to read it.

Best wishes,


Joking aside, thanks very much Andy. I'm terrible at acting on good suggestions like this, so don't hold your breath. I merely record here how extremely delighted I would be if David Friedman (whom I greatly admire and enjoy reading) were to hear by psychic emanation that such a piece of writing would be welcome, and were to supply such a piece. So, someone emanate him please.

Here's DF's first paragraph:

It is often said that Adam Smith, despite his general belief in Laissez-faire, made an exception for education. That is not entirely true. In the course of a lengthy and interesting discussion, Smith argues both that education is a legitimate government function, at least in some societies, and that it is a function which governments perform very badly. His conclusion is that while it is legitimate for government to subsidize education, it may be more prudent to leave education entirely private.

To expand a little on what Damian Green (see below) said, what Green said was that Adam Smith supported the principle of state provided education "for a very small expense", although I don't know if those were Smith's words or merely Green's. The latter I suspect, although he made it sound like the former. But the system of state funded education that Green then went on to support, and in his imagination only to tinker with somewhat, can hardly be described as involving only a "very small" expense.

And DF is quite right. If you actually read what Smith thought about education, you find that he actually had an extremely sceptical attitude toward state provision or payment, and, unlike later "liberals", strongly supported fee-paying. See also this essay by the late great E.G. West. It's only an acrobat file I'm afraid, but it is worth printing out and reading in full. I did the former last night and am now about half way through doing the latter. Expect further bloggage here about that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:17 PM
Category: Politics
[2] [0]
January 27, 2003
The meaning of "independent school"

More from Julius Blumfeld, who, by the way, is happy to receive whatever email anyone wants to send him here.

The 2002 Education Act is a classic of its kind. Two hundred and seventeen sections and twenty two schedules of new rules and regulations to gladden the hearts of officials and teaching unions. And tucked in amongst that lot is a particularly worrying section entitled "Independent School Standards".

You might have thought that parents who send their children to private schools are hardly in need of "protection" from the State. After all, they're paying thousands of pounds a year to give their children the best possible start in life. Surely they can be relied upon to spot bad schools a mile off? Apparently not. The Government has decided that there is a loophole in the law and that it is time to regulate “the quality of education provided at independent schools” and “the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils at independent schools”.

The idea that the Government is better than parents at judging the quality of their children’s education is silly. But the idea that the Government is going to regulate ”the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development” of children strikes me as downright Orwellian.

The implications for home educators are worrying. The Act defines a “school” as any place where five or more children receive full time education. So if two families with three children apiece get together to teach their children, the Act will apply and the parents will have to satisfy various officials that the children’s spiritual, moral, social and cultural development is up to scratch.

It makes me wonder what would happen if a few hard-line libertarian parents and teachers got together and set up a little school. What if the children were taught that the Government has no business banning drugs, that the modern State is a criminal enterprise and that taxation is theft? My guess is that under the 2002 Education Act, they wouldn’t last five minutes.

Julius Blumfeld

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:00 PM
Category: Politics
[1] [0]
January 26, 2003
Charles Clarke's ears

I keep trying to think of profound things to say about the British government's education policies, but nothing about these policies seems very profound to me. Mildly harmful, but not profound. A relentless drizzle of initiatives. Threats to get rid of silly exams. Threats to introduce different and slightly sillier exams. Policies to allow educational organisations to do new things, like charge higher fees to the people they are teaching, but combined with regulations to ensure that the institutions thus blessed also let in an appropriately diverse intake of students. Fuss, fuss, fuss. Decline, but masked by constant fiddling with the instruments that might have registered decline more clearly. Ever more centralised control by people who have no great optimism about what it might achieve, but who simply don't know what else to do. The British Government doing its thing, in other words.

What effect is our new education minister, Charles Clarke MP, having on British education? Much the same as all his recent predecessors, it seems to me.

From where I sit, by far the most striking thing about this man is the remarkable appearance of his ears, which stick out sideways and make him look like an elephant. This is the best picture of this man I could find, at his own website. (I was reminded of all this by seeing Mr Clarke being impersonated on TV this evening by Rory Bremner.)

I'd be delighted to read opinions about this man and his potential impact upon British education which are more serious than that. If I arrive at any such opinions myself, I'll let you all know.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:53 PM
Category: Politics
[1] [0]
December 01, 2002
Univerzzzzzzity Finanzzzzzzz

I just cannot get myself into a stew about university financing. I know I probably should, and maybe someone will say something that eventually wakes me up. Meanwhile, if you are already excited about this, go to Liberty Log, where there's a link to a speech by the University of St Andrews Master and Deputy Principal Professor Colin Vincent, containing the suggestion that the government should go on paying for everything, but that the posh universities, like St Andrews, should get a bigger slice of the pie.

Alex Singleton says: "I can't see the rest of the country supporting it."

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:16 PM
Category: Higher educationPolitics
[1] [0]
November 26, 2002
Bush knowledge versus Gore knowledge

Joanne Jacobs links to one of those reports that says that Americans are, in her phrase, "Global Morons".

- Thirty-four percent of the young Americans knew that the island used on last season's "Survivor'' show was located in the South Pacific, but only 30 percent could locate the state of New Jersey on a map. The "Survivor'' show's location was the Marquesas Islands in the eastern South Pacific.

- When asked to find 10 specific states on a map of the United States, only California and Texas could be located by a large majority of those surveyed. Both states were correctly located by 89 percent of the participants. Only 51 percent could find New York, the nation's third most populous state.

- On a world map, Americans could find on average only seven of 16 countries in the quiz. Only 89 percent of the Americans surveyed could find their own country on the map.

- In the world map test, Swedes could find an average of 13 of the 16 countries. Germans and Italians were next, with an average of 12 each.

- Only 71 percent of the surveyed Americans could locate on the map the Pacific Ocean, the world's largest body of water. Worldwide, three in 10 of those surveyed could not correctly locate the Pacific Ocean.

- Although 81 percent of the surveyed Americans knew that the Middle East is the Earth's largest oil exporter, only 24 percent could find Saudi Arabia on the map.

But now hang on. Is this not exactly the kind of ignorance that successive Republican Presidents are constantly criticised for? (I'm thinking especially of Reagan and Bush Jnr.) And do not the exact kind of people who are now complaining about how, e.g., geography teaching in the USA has gone down the public toilet, to the point where X percent of Americans don't know where the Pacific Ocean is, then defend their Republican Presidents by pointing out that there's more to knowing your way around in the world than knowing where things are on maps? Are they not right? I think they are. I think that President Bush is at least as savvy in the ways of the world as any Euro-statesman just now.

And that US Army. It usually seems to arrive in the right places, when it matters.

Europeans have long complained about how "ignorant" the inhabitants of the USA are, ignorant that is to say, of such facts as the location of the Pacific Ocean, and indeed they are. But which countries have done better in recent decades, the European ones, or the USA? The top scoring countries in this international survey of geographical knowledge or lack of it were, see above: Sweden, Germany and Italy. Oh, I'm impressed. They've all been doing far better than the USA, haven't they?

If Bush Jnr. and Al Gore had had a geography test face-off during their fiercely close election battle, it's my clear understanding that Gore would have won, just as it's my clear understanding that a Gore post 9/11 foreign policy would probably have been a disaster, with President Gore knowing beforehand exactly where all the countries were on the map that he would never have learned how to handle properly.

Or is Bush really hyper-educated, and just pretending to be ignorant in order to suck up to all those genuinely ignorant Americans out there? I believe there was once a sketch on one of those Friday Night or Saturday Night or whenever Live comedy shows, in which a publicly bumbling aw-shucks President Reagan was shown in private as sporting a machine-gun ultra-high-IQ intellect with which he subjected even his most famously clever assistants to relentless private humiliations, but which was immediately switched off again as soon as he emerged back into the public arena.

I'm not saying that I'm in favour of ignorance, exactly. I'm just saying that, as Americans often say, book learnin' ain't ev'r'thin'.

You probably think I'm saying this just to be arkward. Well, yes, pretty much.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:30 PM
Category: Politics
[2] [0]
November 25, 2002
Singapore planning

So once again I type "Education" into google, and hit number one is this, from the Straits Times:

Education for education's sake best for S'pore

I REFER to the letter, 'Education system has evolved with nation's needs' (ST, Nov 22), by Ministry of Education director of planning Tang Tuck Weng.

He said that what The Straits Times has called 'Singapore's famously rigid education system' is seen differently by objective external observers. He then quoted a statistical ranking, that placed Singapore in fourth place in its ability to meet the needs of a competitive economy, and said that far from being rigid, our education system has responded to changes in the needs of the nation and the economy.

What's good or bad about Singapore's education system?

But objective observers are less likely to spot the less-obvious faults of the system than someone like me who has gone through the system and moved on to study in America.

Mr Tang's answer demonstrates the key problem with the education system in Singapore.

The rigidity of the education system stems from the fact that it is focused not on educating people, but on meeting the needs of the economy.

His use of the statistic simply substantiates my belief that the Education Ministry sees its main role as a producer of manpower for Singapore's economy.

It is still based on the old-style idea of centralised planning, with a ministry taking in all data and making a decision as to what sort of education is necessary for our children, with the belief that this will fit into the kind of economy we have in mind.

This is fine if the Education Ministry and the Government make no mistakes.

But …

Teh Peijing then goes on to describe a recent Singapore government imposed disaster concerning the manufacture of Singaporean engineers:

… I remember that not too long ago the Government was rather vocal in encouraging people to become engineers.

Which turned a lot of his friends into unemployed engineers. Now, says he, he notes a similar obsession with bio-engineering.

He votes instead for what he calls "all-round education":

I believe that the Ministry of Education should focus on educating Singaporeans, for the sake of educating Singaporeans.

I believe that an education system focused entirely on giving Singaporeans the best all-round education, without considering the short-term needs of the economy, might be better for Singapore in the long run.

What we need is not a workforce that is deemed necessary by economic planners, but a workforce that is creative, dynamic, independent, rounded, passionate and entrepreneurial. I think such a workforce has a higher chance of survival in an increasingly fluid global economic situation.

Which sounds okay, but what exactly does it mean? What if the result is a plague of American-educated humanities academics who could no more turn out "entrepreneurial" Singaporeans than they could train bio-engineers?

For it is at this point that Mr Teh (I'm hoping that this is the correct way to address the gentleman) reveals that he too believes in the power of government to prophecy the future:

All in all, while the ministry has done an admirable job so far, we ought not to be complacent. Would it not be better to have an education system that pre-empts, rather than evolves in response to, changes?

To me, actually, it sounds worse. "Pre-empts" changes?

What I think we have here is an argument between one semi-deluded, my guess-is-better-than-yours centralist and another. Although Mr Teh talks much sense when he criticises his rival, I wonder which is actually better for Singapore, unemployed bio-engineers or unemployed "all-round education" persons?

Could it be that what Mr Teh really wants is a generation of ("passionate") political trouble-makers? Because that's what he would probably get. It might be no bad thing.

"Might" being the important word there.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:38 PM
Category: Politics
[3] [0]
November 23, 2002
Children - who is ultimately responsible?

If you are a specialist blogger, you rely heavily on the other specialist bloggers doing your specialism, until such time as you get the hang of it, and I find myself relying on Daryl Cobranchi, a lot. Yesterday, for example, Daryl linked to a column at SchoolReformers.com which is well worth a look.

Who owns children? The government or their parents? I know I know, the children own the children. But until such time as the children can look after themselves, who is ultimately responsible for looking after them in the meantime? Who makes the final decisions? Parents or government? Here are David W. Kirkpatrick's first two paragraphs:

If you ask parents to whom their children belong, or who should be responsible for them, once they get over the shock of such a question most would point to themselves. They might find it hard to believe that anyone would maintain the contrary.

But a contrary view has a long history, going back to ancient Sparta. In that Greek city-state, when boys became seven years old they were taken from their families, placed in state-run boarding schools and trained to meet the needs of this military society. That would be extreme today but the essential belief that the young belong to the state has never died.

The history lesson that follows is an American history lesson, but America is an interesting place. Yesterday, someone, somewhere in the blogosphere, or maybe somewhere in among all those pre-blogosphere emails I still get, was asking about the whole idea of the "nationalisation of children". This would be a good place to look further.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:20 PM
Category: HistoryPolitics
[4] [3]
November 19, 2002
The British educational Raj

Quoting yourself is about as crass and uncool as it is possible to get when blogging, but I can't put my point now better than I put it yesterday morning:

Actually, I don't think that the changes needed can come from the official system at all. I think it goes to the state of mind of the consumer/victims of it all. Do these people – parents and children (especially children) - decide that they're consumers, or that they're victims? That's what matters.

Yes, that is what matters, to me anyway, and it explains something that has been puzzling me.

Whenever, during the last few days, I needed (like a school teacher bluffing together tomorrow morning's lesson late the night before) to say something in a hurry about "education", I would trawl through google and through a few of the other edu-blogs, and above all through the regular electronic news services, looking for current "education stories". And up would come university funding rows, and national bullying guidelines, and national teachers' prizes, and national this and national that, and I would struggle to stay interested.

The UNESCO stuff gets my active attention, because if that gets going it will make the education of humans on this planet an order of magnitude worse (certainly a hell of a lot more expensive) even than it is already. But the national stuff, or at any rate the British national stuff? I mostly can't make myself care about it.

I think I now know why. Like the British national public sector in general, the British educational national public sector has had the stuffing knocked out of it over the years. It has lost its Will to Power. It is merely going through the motions, not because it believes in going through those motions, merely because it can't think what else to do. The British public sector has entered its decadent phase, the redoubling-your-efforts-when-you've-forgotten-your-aim phase.

Accordingly, if faced with a fierce conviction that there is a far different and far better way to do things educational, the British national public sector will retreat in confusion.

At present there exists no national counter-conviction of this sort. The general public of Britain are just as much a part of this decadent phase as any politician or education bureaucrat. The public also can mostly only think of "them" spending more money and enacting yet more rules and regulations and installing yet more committees and safeguards and guidelines and statutory obligations. And, it claps when prizes are awarded to any teacher seems to have retained the ability and willingness to keep on navigating through this ever-accumulating mess and is managing still to get some real teaching done.

The situation reminds me of a remark attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, or at any rate said by Ben Kingsley as Gandhi in the movie of that name, to the effect that it is "simply impossible for millions of Indians to be ruled a few thousand Englishmen unless the millions of Indians allow themselves" so to be ruled. Something like that.

That's how I feel about education. Some power structures are strong, viciously imposed, sure of themselves, and those ones have to be clandestinely criticised, and in due course attacked by force of arms and meanwhile resisted by force of arms, if they are ever to be destroyed. Gandhian pacifism doesn't work against a regime which, unlike the British Raj, shoots demonstrators dead, in whatever numbers the demonstrators choose to present themselves.

But the British education monster is not now like that. British education is not Nazi Germany, however much its libertarian critics are sometimes tempted by its routine horrors to shout out that it is. If you are, say, a fourteen year old English boy, and you have a clear idea of what next you want to do with your life, then the changes are that you can now do it. Civil disobedience - in the form of the refusal to do what they (which may even include your own parents) want, and the determination to do what you want – is really quite likely to work, provided you give serious thought to the tactics you are using, targetting your nastiness with care and also using lots of politeness and incidental concessions on issues that don't matter to you, in short provided that your disobedience really is civil.

Stubborn parents, full to the brim with Will to Power, would, I admit, be a serious problem. But most parents, in Britain now, aren't like that either. They too will defer to a strongly held, rationally argued plan.

All of which means that the state of mind of the victims is what matters. The latest bumblings of the compulsory-by-default system just don't matter nearly so much.

Expect more on this.

My next posting will be a down-to-earth piece about some actual teaching that I have actually done. Promise.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:05 PM
Category: Politics
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November 16, 2002
Score one hit for BEdBlog

Buried in among all this from here a week or two ago is me complaining, from a position of sublime Brit-based ignorance about something called the "No Child Left Behind" campaign or initiative or Presidential (Bush jnr. in this case) Directive or program or whatever they call it over there. I say it's politics and I say the hell with it, was my line, going on nothing but the fact that it definitely is politics.

Well now here's someone who sounds as if he actually knows about it, Michael Lopez of Highered Intelligence (expect a properly organised link Real Soon Now blah blah blah), complaining a lot more loudly than me about this thing, which he calls the "No Child Left Behind So Let's All Stay In Place" Act - which tells you something more right away, yes?

Please read what Lopez says, but if you absolutely insist on only taking my word for it, at least read this quote that Lopez got from here:

Perverse incentives work. A law where the consequences mean that Arkansas has zero failing schools and Michigan has 1,500 is bound to have unintended consequences--every state strives to be Arkansas.

Says Lopez:

That is a very. . . poetic way of putting it.

Say I: That's politics. The difference is that when you or I or for that matter Michael Lopez start doing something idiotic, we can stop as soon as we realise that it's idiotic, say sorry, and switch to something non-idiotic in the space of about two days - maybe a couple of weeks if we're in charge of something complicated. But This Thing is now a law. To change a USA version of one of those you either have to wait about four years minimum, or else get the incumbent President of the United States to say very loudly: "I am an idiot." Good luck.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:42 PM
Category: Politics
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Quote Unquote

"There are many things the government can't do, many good purposes it must renounce. It must leave them to the enterprise of others. It cannot feed the people. It cannot enrich the people. It cannot teach the people."
- Lord Acton, quoted by Gary M. Galles in a piece about Acton for the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:50 AM
Category: Politics
[0] [2]
November 15, 2002
More Colcloughing

Once again I typed "Education" into google, and what was hit number one? That's right. Professor Christopher Colclough of UNESCO. I told you this stuff wouldn't go away.

LONDON: Pakistan, China, Bangladesh and India, home to 61 per cent of world's illiterate's adults, will not be able to achieve 'Education For All' (EFA) by 2015 unless special efforts are made, said a Global Monitoring Report here on Wednesday.

The 2002 "Education For All Global Monitoring Report: Is the World on Track" was launched at a press conference by Prof. Christopher Colclough, an eminent British education expert at UN Information Centre here today. It is prepared by an independent, international team based at UNESCO in Paris as part of the follow-up to the Dakar Forum and is funded jointly by UNESCO, unilateral and bilateral agencies.

Prof. Christopher Colclough explained the salient features of the report which has set six EFA goals at the Dakar Forum a few years back which are, to ensure that all children of primary school age would have access to and complete free schooling of acceptable quality, the gender disparities in schooling to be eliminated. Its aims include that levels of adult literacy would be halved, early childhood care and education would be expanded, learning opportunities for youth and adults would be greatly increased and all aspects of education quality would be improved.

Spot the deliberate mistake. "Its aims include that levels of adult literacy would be halved …"

As I said in my first report on all this, the temptation is to find the silliest thing being said (as I just did), to have a laugh and then to forget about it. But what we are witnessing here is the attempt to create a worldwide Ministry of Education. The effect of that, if it happened, would be to crowd out the efforts of more effective and more directly accountable freelance local educators who would provide a better education system at a fraction of the cost that UNESCO will incur. This is no joke.

With luck, UNESCO will be ignored by all those "donor countries" whom Colclough is now berating, and what money is donated will be pocketed by corrupt Third World politicians and bureaucrats. This will leave the field free for the voluntary and free market operators to do their stuff.

Education in Britain first started to be seriously nationalised in 1870. By then mass literacy was pretty much an accomplished fact, and although the effect of nationalised and ever more compulsory education was gradually to slow down rather than to accelerate educational development, state educators took the credit for the momentum that had already been established by the private sector.

But Britain, in contrast with the Third World now, was cursed (for these purposes) with an honest civil service. Money collected for education was money spent on education, and thus the serious educational damage could begin. So there is hope that the Third World education story may also turn out okay, despite Professor Colclough's worst efforts to mess things up. As I have also reported before, the Indian education story enables us to be optimistic.

Something tells me that BEdBlog readers have not heard the last of this Colclough character.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:12 AM
Category: Politics
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November 06, 2002
Why I am now a peacenik

BEdBlog isn't here to discuss things like whether the USA should be attacking Iraq, but here's why it shouldn't.

As part of the coalition-building exercise, the USA is rejoining UNESCO, and catching up with all its unpaid subscriptions. This is a financial windfall for UNESCO, which is trying to "globally nationalise" (transnationalise?) education, especially in the Third World, and it will now be better placed to proceed with this.

In other words, education world-wide will become more like this and less like this.

My thanks to my friend Antoine Clarke for this insight.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:17 PM
Category: Politics
[1] [0]
November 05, 2002
UNESCO versus education

Bloggers everywhere are saying hurrah for Brian's EDUCATION Blog. Can't stop them. Brian from Samizdata. Not just Brian anybody. Brian Me. So I'd better give all these people who are flocking here in their tens something to read or at least know that they could have read, before I go to bed. So how about this fascinating piece of prose?

Paris, November 4 - Two and a half years after pledging to achieve education for all by 2015, more than 70 countries - on present trends - will not make it. This is the stern warning from the 2002 Education for All Global Monitoring Report which will be launched at a press conference organized by UNESCO in London on November 13.

I really should care about this. But honestly, where's the surprise? It makes you long to turn a satirist loose, to write about how UNESCO is doing its best to stamp out education worldwide, but the problem is still persisting, or some such. And it has to be some kind of law that anything promising things by the year 2015 is self-identified as nonsense.

The report will be presented by the eminent British education and development expert, Prof. Christopher Colclough, who is also its Director.

And I'm sure I ought to know who Professor Colclough is. Anyone? The name does sound vaguely familiar.

This second Global Monitoring Report clearly shows which countries are falling behind, or even going backwards, and examines why this is happening. It also presents some startling conclusions on the question of financing education for all. At the World Education Forum (Dakar, Senegal, 2000), participants, and particularly the major donor nations and agencies, vowed that no country seriously committed to education would be thwarted by a lack of resources. But, two years later, who has paid up? And are the national and international funds devoted to EFA sufficient?

So. Some "countries" have promised to give lots of money to some people not under their control, and now they aren't coming across with it. This is supposed to be startling.

"Countries" don't promise things, or for that matter fall behind or go backwards. "Donor nations" ditto. People promise things and these promises should only be taken seriously when the person doing the promising has complete control over what he is promising to do and is a person with a track record of delivering on such promises.

Governments, no matter how individually trustworthy the individuals who make them up may happen to be, are by their nature not organisations which can be relied upon. Politicians will screw you. They'll promise to hand over gobs of money to you. They'll promise you that they're going to be oh-so-committed to spending that money in the proper way, if someone else is giving it to them. But if you confuse these proclamations with facts about the future, well, you are due for some further education.

My blogging friends call what I'm now doing "Fisking", after a journalist called Fisk whom they all hate. I remember this process from my posh prep school as being called "comprehension". We would have to go through some ghastly lump of prose, sentence my sentence, and make as much sense of it as we could. Hideous memories are flooding back.

Published annually, the report is prepared by an independent international team based at UNESCO in Paris (France) as part of the follow-up to the Dakar Forum. It is funded jointly by UNESCO and multilateral and bilateral agencies, and benefits from the advice of an international editorial board.

And so this proclamation ends. It's so dull it seems to want to be ignored. For twenty minutes I could think of nothing further to say in response. But I knew I would have to think of something, if only to ensure that I at least managed to have the last word on my own blog.

Eventually I did squeeze a conclusion out of myself, and it is this, and that wanting-to-be-ignored vibe was the clue.

The temptation is to say that the Colcloughs of this world, all Colcloughing away year after year, are just total idiots, doing no good to anyone of any sort whatsoever, but – comforting thought – also doing no harm. I wish I could believe this, but I don't. This international fusspotocracy of conferencers and pledgers of achievement and multilateralists and bilateralists and beneficiaries of each other's international editorial advice is already doing actual harm and it threatens to do a whole lot more in the years to come. A failed promise is not the sort of promise that these people are going to allow to just fade away. No. They'll nag and nag away, and eventually they will be sloshing money around the Third World with such abandon that education itself will be seriously damaged, in much the same way that "aid" damages all the other things it is sprayed over. In other words, and this is my key point here, just ignoring this stuff won't make it go away.

For people like me the damage is already being done. This kind of verbiage already occupies mental space in educational heads everywhere, that ought to be occupied by quite different and much more accurate ideas about how education in particular and things in general are actually done successfully. When I go fishing for what's been happening in "education" today, this guff is not what ought to rise, dripping, out of the canal. But it did.

On the other hand, if you work for UNESCO or you were at this Dakar Forum or if you think that UNESCO reports like this can make an actual beneficial difference to the world, then push where it says "Comments" and do your worst.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:50 AM
Category: Politics
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