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Category Archive • Selection
July 12, 2004
Selection is good: "When I first taught him, he liked to flick rubber bands and attack some of his school mates …"

Yes it is, says Francis Gilbert in this Telegraph piece:

Once, like many of my Left-wing teacher colleagues, I would have been enraged by the idea of selection. However, my experience as an English teacher in London comprehensives and the example of a naughty 12-year-old boy called Rees have taught me to welcome it.

Two years ago, I started teaching at The Coopers' Company and Coborn School, which is nominally a "comprehensive". Set up by a livery company during the reign of Henry VIII, it still caters for children from all over east London. Much like the London Oratory, where Tony Blair sends his children, its "faith school" status allows it to interview children and pick bright, articulate students - whatever their background.

Rees was one of our chosen. He was very much an East End lad: highly intelligent and streetwise. He lived with his mother in a tower block and I knew the school he would have gone to if he hadn't come to ours. Many of the children there were unable to read and write fluently and a hard-core would be thoroughly disruptive. In such places it is simply not "cool" to be academic; so many of the students just refuse to learn. Indeed, some are often bullied if they work hard, so the few cleverer children are dragged down.

At Coopers, however, most pupils want to work hard. And when he got here, so did Rees. Seeing him tackling ambitious subjects and clearly benefiting from the experience, changed my mind about selection.

I can hear protests of the cossetted educationalists: "Ah, but what about the schools in his area that are deprived of pupils like Rees by selective schools?" But in my experience it is the disaffected, clever children who are by far the worst behaved. They have too little to do; they have time to be disruptive. And Rees was indeed a badly-behaved boy. When I first taught him, he liked to flick rubber bands and attack some of his school mates if he was not fully engaged.

In an typical comprehensive he would have probably become a serious threat to discipline, but he didn't with us because he soon found himself challenged by his work. I saw a miraculous change come over him as he progressed. He became competitive about his work when he saw that other boys – tough characters like himself – wanted to do well. Because the standard was higher than in his previous school he had to fight harder and much of his energy was diverted and absorbed in trying to succeed.

Here's a link to the school that Gilbert is writing about, where as you can see here he is the Head of English.

The good thing about this is that Gilbert deals head on with the claim that the good pupils raise up the bad, and counters it with the observation that the bad are just as likely to bring down the good.

For me, regardless of the particular consequences in this or that case, selection is but a particular manifestation of the general principle of Freedom of Association. X and Y should only have to associate with one another if both consent. If X wants out, he should be allowed out, however much Y likes him and wants him to stay. If Y wants X out of his property, despite X's bitter regret, tough. That's how everything, including education, should be. For me, any policy other than "selection" is the outrage.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:41 PM
Category: Selection
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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
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September 26, 2003
Educational selection – why I don't like the "hypocrisy" argument in favour of it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:46 AM
Category: Selection
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September 08, 2003
Schwartz versus Clarke - grammar versus comprehensive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This argument is not going to go away.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:00 PM
Category: Selection
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November 12, 2002
Nature - and how to nurture it

For me one of the highlights of the Libertarian Alliance/Libertarian International Conference last weekend was the talk given first thing on Sunday morning by Stefan Blankertz. Listening to a German talking in a definitely German accent about genetics pressed all kinds of irrelevant Anglo-Saxon buttons installed in me by a thousand movies and TV shows, but I strongly recommend that such silly prejudices be shoved aside, and that you also give some attention to this lecture, the entire text of which is now available at Liberalia, the website run by Christian Michel. Blankertz is an uncompromising libertarian, and this was one of the most sensible and humane talks about the relationship between nature and nurture that I've ever attended.

The starting point of his argument was the inescapable fact that children are not all alike. His schematic sub-division of them for the purpose of explication into three learning types - the Worker, the Craftsman and the Student - was almost as crude as the claim that all children are identical, but this enabled him to make his subsequent points, and insofar as genetic differences between children are actually a lot more complicated, as they surely are, then that only lent yet more force to his argument.

If you subject all types of children to an education best suited only to "Students", said Blankertz, then you will not maximise educational achievement. The way to do that, as most sane educators acknowledge even if they may not all care to trumpet it too loudly, is to give each different child the different kind of education that will enable him or her each to make the most progress.

But how do you know what that is going to be? Do you let the parents decide? That's probably better than trusting the state to get it right. But what if some parents, perhaps through an ambitious refusal to face the facts about what sort of child they really have, want their "Craftsman" child, say, to be treated as a "Student", on the grounds that this will turn their child into a Student for real, but will in fact only turn him into a badly educated Craftsman? Blankertz's answer is for the children themselves to have more freedom of choice in the matter.

In short, said Blankertz, summing up:

My conclusion of the Nature versus Nurture debate is as follows:

1. Saying that intelligence is "genetically" determined does not imply that it is not affected by environmental factors.

2. For best results do not choose one environment for all, but the best one for each individual.

3. In order to choose the best environment for each individual we would need complete information, which we don’t have. The next best thing is the market process.

And the next best thing is not the one-style-fits-all insensitivity of many state education systems.

Most state education systems now try to treat all children as "Students", and regard any suggestion that, for example, "Craftsmen" should instead start working in their mid-teens alongside fully qualified adult Master Craftsmen (which is what Blankertz recommends) as insulting. The result of this demand that all students should be "Students" is a shortage of well educated (in craftsmanship) Craftsmen, and dole queues full of badly educated and rebellious ones.

(A Swiss attender of the conference told me afterwards that in his country they follow the recommended Blankertz approach devotedly. The result is a country abounding in profoundly respected and very skilled Craftsmen, in which everything technical works flawlessly and is ready bang on schedule. The contrast with my own Britain is almost too painful to think about.)

Blankertz also took time out to criticise the argument put forward by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein in their book The Bell Curve. Murray and Herrnstein say that the reason why black children in the USA are not helped more by the state is that they are genetically inferior. But what if this "help" is of the wrong kind, and is actually harmful? Said Blankertz:

What is curious about Charles Murray is that in his former book Loosing Ground he seemed to say exactly this: The welfare state programs actually harmed the underprivileged who were supposed to profit from them. This hypothesis gave Charles Murray some credit among libertarians. But in The Bell Curve he argues that people who do not react positively to the welfare programs could only be genetically inferior. This is just bad science.


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:41 PM
Category: Selection
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