E-mails and comments welcome from teachers and learners of all ages.  
Category Archive • Sovietisation
December 10, 2004
"Leave us alone you corduroy-clad arsehole …"

Nuanced observations from Harry Hutton about what he will be doing next (and why), in the education line:

Just called the British Council to see if they’ll give me a job. The thought of teaching English again fills me with acute suicidal instincts, but I'm running out of money and it's either that or sell one of my kidneys. The British Council is better than most language schools. It's run by the UK Foreign Office: all the other language schools I worked at were run by drunks. They could use this in pamphlets as their "unique selling point." It would be an improvement on "Creating Opportunity for People Worldwide," which is the current slogan.

THE BRITISH COUNCIL
At least it's not run by a drunk.

And when people ask me what I do I will no longer have to stare at the floor and mutter that I am a teacher "but I do other things as well". I can look them squarely in the eye and say, "I work for the cultural arm of the British Embassy, and if I don't get some respect around here I shall have you all shot."

The other advantage of working for the British Council is that there are no British Council inspections to put up with: they don't inspect themselves. Other schools have to be "accredited" by the BC, which means that every so often some bearded fuck with a clipboard will appear in your classroom, poking his long nose in. Usually, he wants to see your lesson plan, which I never have, lesson plans being strictly for poofs in my opinion. "Oh," he says, "You don't have a lesson plan," and writes something on his clipboard, deeply shocked by such depravity. When the class is over you get feedback, and he will express disappointment that you aren't using the phonetic alphabet. And do you want to know why I don't use the phonetic alphabet? Because my students couldn't tell the difference between a plosive, a fricative and a poke in the eye with a burnt stick. And if I tried to force them to learn it they would rise up and pelt me with fruit.

… and about the same amount as that more. Ever since I called this man "terse" he has been mouthing off like one of those mad people in the street.

However, the point about having a job that supplies you with a good answer to the question "And What Do You Do?" is a very good one. As are the points that follow about how "Teacher Talking Time" mustn't be too high. Don't you dare teach the buggers, in other words.

By the way, the comments at Harry's blog are often worth reading. They are even sometimes quite funny, which is rare with comments at funny blogs, in my experience. (See Barry, Dave.) This bit of comment, for example, from "dsquared", is good, and relevant to proceedings here:

Of course, some economists question whether there are not productivity implications if you have a system where only the second-raters are left to carry on actual production, while people more able than themselves try to prevent them, but that's a problem for the future. It's rather like Atlas Shrugged but with more box-ticking.

Ah box ticking ...

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:45 PM
Category: LanguagesSovietisationThe reality of teaching
[1] [0]
October 29, 2004
Francis Gilbert on …

… helping.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:33 PM
Category: Sovietisation
[0] [0]
October 24, 2004
Ticking the boxes

Last week I completed my Digital Photography for Beginners course. We spent the last two of the five days learning about Photoshop, that is to say, how to turn your camera into a liar.

On the final morning I participated in an educational ritual about which I am hearing more and more. This is called: "Ticking the Boxes". In my case there were no actual boxes, but the ticks were all present and correct.

What this means is that a piece of paper asks you if everything in the lessons has gone as it should, with the right things being taught, all according to the plan, and all of them learned, also according to the plan, and you reply: yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, etc.

Two of the ticks were not totally correct, namely the final two (although now they are correct). This was because we had yet to perform those final two items of educational advancement. But Sir said put a tick anyway. If one were to take the form literally – that is to say as an organ for discovering the truth rather than as an empty ritual – the final two ticks should have been delayed until the end of the afternoon. But what kind of an idiot would do a thing like that? Tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick tick.

TickBoxes.jpg

Knowing what I now know about the evils of Photoshop, I realise that you are just going to have to take my word for it that this is what the form I filled in looked like after I had filled it in. But do, for that is how it looked.

In my case the lies I told with ticks were so tiny as to be nigh on invisible, and reality immediately caught up with them. But I am told by others that often, when the boxes are all ticked, the lies told are monstrous. The ticks have no connection whatever with what really happened. But nothing but complication and confusion is caused by telling the truth on these forms by not ticking them in all the places where ticks go, and anyone who does is instantly self-branded as a trouble-maker.

Everyone in the system, from the lowliest school cleaner up to the Minister of Education, and on up to the very Prime Minister himself, knows that the information gathered in this manner has only a random relationship to the truth, but all agree to pretend that the ticks in the boxes do indeed describe reality.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:22 AM
Category: Sovietisation
[3] [1]
September 30, 2004
An Education Secretary's lot is not a happy one

I recall how, during the Cold War, you could quote anonymously from some speech, evidently made by some extremely discontented old buffer who no longer cared about little things like being sent to die in a prison camp. The economy is shit. Nothing works. Repairing a fridge takes for ever. The country needs industrial managers willing to be responsible for things, honest government officials, a sober army, far less poison in the air and in the water, far more adventurous use of modern technology, better manners, young people to behave themselves, trains to run on time, blah blah blah, it's all going to hell, etc. etc. And then you revealed that the man who was saying all this was none other than Mr Brezhnev, in his main Supreme Lord High Everything speech to the XXXXXXXth conference of the Communist Party of the USSR. He was nominally in charge of everything, yet he never got what he wanted either.

This reminds me of that:

He gave a frank assessment of the education system's failings, particularly for 14 to 19-year-olds.

"Too much of the work does not stretch the ablest pupils enough,” he said.

"Too much of the work leads some pupils to switch off entirely and to turn to truancy and disruption.

"Too much of the assessment is an excessive burden rather than a stimulation.

"Too many students leave school without knowing their grammar and being properly numerate," he said.

"There is too much of a division between the academic and the vocational streams of study. …"

So who is this discontented old trouble maker? Why it is Mr Clarke, the politician supposedly in charge of Britain's state education system.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:18 PM
Category: Sovietisation
[0] [0]
April 30, 2004
Heads they lose

Recruiting head teachers is getting harder, says David Hart of NAHT.

The turnover of senior management in schools has reached crisis levels, with headteachers suffering from "football manager syndrome" a conference heard today.

Which is daft. There is no shortage of people wanting to be football managers. Make that the political people talking about football in a desperate attempt to get media coverage syndrome.

Vacancies for headteachers has reached the highest level in seven years and is 20% up on this time last year, according to analysis from the National Association of Head Teachers, revealed at its annual conference in Cardiff.

David Hart, NAHT general secretary, said: "Headteacher turnover is reaching critical proportions."

Read the whole thing, as they say.

My interpretation? If you sovietise the education system, but allow other parts of the economy to remain relatively unsovietised, people will flee the sovietised bit, just as they fled from old fashioned Communism. (The answer: A free market in education.)

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:06 PM
Category: Sovietisation
[1] [0]
March 25, 2004
Two more redirects to Samizdata

I've recently put two stories up at Samizdata on educational themes. The first is a straight copy and paste job, with a only a small burst of preliminary chat from me, of David Gillies' comment here on this posting, about academic cheating. I also linked from Samizdata to this highly recommendable recollection by Natalie Solent, on the same subject, also written in the first person.

And the second is a reaction to this Telegraph article about how a British mum has been jailed for failing to prevent her daughter's truancy.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:46 PM
Category: SovietisationTruancy
[0] [0]
March 23, 2004
This is why you have exams

Frank Furedi in the Telegraph, on cheating at university:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:27 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsSovietisation
[5] [3]
March 10, 2004
Francis Gilbert on educational bureaucracy

British state schools are now being graded according to how successful they are, and there are now a lot of stories flying around about children who are discouraged from attempting courses the exams at the end of which their teachers think they are liable to fail, even if those same teachers think that the course itself would be good for the child's education.

Teacher Francis Gilbert writes to this effect in today's Times T2 Magazine, now available to read at timesonline (but not for long if you are not British – if I understand things correctly).

Times have changed a great deal since I went to school in the early 1980s. Teachers are under pressure to get results, and results are usually put first in most institutions. I know this from bitter experience as an English teacher. When I started teaching in the early 1990s, league tables were unheard of and most teachers did not think much about their classes' results. This changed when the first league tables were published in 1992. I remember the day I learnt that I was teaching in a school which was officially the worst in England – only 3 per cent of students achieved five or more GCSEs at A-C grades.

Most of the staff, as they sat amid exercise books in the dog-eared staffroom, hunched over chipped mugs of coffee, were unutterably glum. No one said much. Only one jokey teacher alleviated the gloom by pronouncing proudly: "We are like Millwall. We’re bottom of the league but we’re hard."

It was tough teaching in that school at that time because it felt as though all the staff's efforts to educate the underprivileged, difficult children who filled its classrooms counted for nothing and were not recognised. Even worse, we were pilloried in the press because of our low ranking. The way that society viewed schools like these made me revise my views about wanting to be a parent to troubled children, which was my initial reason for joining the school. I saw that I would get no thanks for this, and would become unhappy if I persisted with this altruistic attitude.

So I changed. Toughened up, one might say. I left the inner-city school and taught at a succession of schools where results were pretty good. Now I keep a vigilant eye on my results, because I have to. As a result, I find that sometimes my head is in conflict with my heart. I know that most students who want to study English at A level benefit from the experience, but I am also aware that some will find A level difficult and will fail to get a good grade. The idealistic teacher in me would like to sign such students on to the A-level course, but the hardened realist with a beady eye on his results exclaims: "No, no! They are bound to land up with a rotten grade. Don’t let them on the course."

This sort of conflict occurs a lot today. What is best for the student is not necessarily best for the institution that wants to be top of the league tables. The obsession with results makes teachers forget why they are teaching.

There are probably some at the DfET who think that if they improve the current measuring system enough it could end up perfect, yet the truth is that educational excellence, like economic excellence, will always elude the measuring systems of bureaucrats. Gilbert is adamant that some of his best teaching has been of the sort which would never show up in government statistics.

Imateacher.jpgIt is my understanding that this is not an actual excerpt from Gilbert's recently published book, I'm A Teacher, Get Me Out Of Here.

This, on the other hand, is lifted straight from that book.

Coincidentally, just as I thought I had finished this posting, this email arrives:

Hello Brian

I heard this and thought of you.

Teacher Francis Gilbert was on Radio2's Drive Time programme this evening (wednesday 11th March), promoting his book "I'm a Teacher Get Me Out of Here!"

Though he described himself as being of the left and wanting equality, he delivered a tirade against a crushing bureaucracy he likened to something out of 1984, and said that he was disillusioned by "what the left had done." Notably, as questioned why schools weren't free to devise their own curriculums, something utterly uncontroversial as far as I'm concerned but seemingly unthinkable in today's political climate.

Host Johnnie Walker even chipped in agreeably, pontificating that anything the government tried to run it messed up!

All this on primetime national radio. Cause for optimism?

Regrds, Kit Taylor

Thanks. Very interesting, and of course smack on the nail I also was banging away at.

Although I rather think that Kit has allowed the recent occurrence of February 29th to pollute his dating system. I know the feeling.

Also, although "regrds" is an acceptable abbreviation , I can't be so happy with "curriculums". "Curricula", I think. The way I see it, if emailers are not corrected, how can they learn?

Follow up email from Kit!

Actually, now I think on Francis Gilbert something even more interesting in the interview.

It was along the lines of -

"I can go to the corner shop, and I can buy a good quality jam or a cheaper one. I have that option. But if I want my daughter [aged three] to learn french or classics, the choices aren't available."

If advanced by the Tories, I'd be unsurprised if such a notion were attacked as Thatcherite extremism. What's interesting is that Gilbert's comments were not apparently derived from ideological dogma, but the product of a "man in the street" intuitively questioning why a system that was working well in one aspect of his life wasn't being applied in another that wasn't.

Thanks again!!

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:33 PM
Category: Sovietisation
[2] [1]
March 09, 2004
The Alien Landscape Weblog on how to nurture "teenagers" differently

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

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

Key paragraphs:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:01 PM
Category: Economics of education Examinations and qualificationsParents and childrenSovietisation
[1] [0]
February 24, 2004
"If the work is sub-standard, you help the pupil to beef it up."

I already have a word for this. Sovietisation:

Having taught GCSE since the exam was introduced 15 years ago, I have become convinced that the coursework element of it is a national scandal. I think people outside the profession would be aghast if they knew how widely abused it is.

For the past 10 years I have been head of the modern languages department in an ordinary comprehensive with 1,000 pupils. Many of them are well-motivated children with supportive parents, but we have our share of disadvantaged and disaffected youngsters. Thanks to the commitment and hard work of the staff, our GCSE pass rate has been improving steadily.

League tables compare the performance of one school against another. The same sort of comparisons are made between parallel classes in the same school. So the onus is on teachers to do all they can to maximise their pupils' marks. One aspect of that is ensuring that every piece of coursework is of the highest possible standard.

If a pupil hands in a piece of work that you feel he could not possibly have done on his own, the days are long gone when integrity and honour would have obliged you to question it. If the work is sub-standard, you help the pupil to beef it up. And then, of course, what you do for one, you must do for the others.

This used to be called cheating. Now, it's the job.

Concluding paragraphs:

The consequence is that our pupils achieve a higher mark for their writing than for all the other parts of the exam, even though it is the hardest element. This is never queried by the GCSE board. Why should it be? It is the same in every other school because - I can only assume - my colleagues are also giving their pupils lists of phrases and sentences to use.

When all the written work is complete, the pupils sign a declaration that it is their own work. The declaration is counter-signed by the teacher, with emotions that can easily be imagined.

The truth is that coursework cannot be policed in such a way that teachers do not succumb to pressure to manipulate the results. I believe it is time to put an end to the scandal. Let teachers teach. Don't put them in the position of having to do the exams as well.

Every year the government asks the teachers: how are you doing? And every year the teachers reply: better and better. A steady improvement.

The real killer punch in this story is that the government itself knows that this is what is really going on. How could they not?

But why would they want to admit that their policies aren't working as well as they've been saying? That's the really "soviet" bit.

The teachers aren't the only ones bending the rules.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:03 PM
Category: Sovietisation
[2] [0]
January 27, 2004
How to get a better Ofsted rating

Here's an interesting way for a school to get better exam results: make clever pupils sit the exam instead of stupid ones.

KUALA LUMPUR Jan 26 – The Kedah Education Department would investigate allegations that a school in the state had substituted candidates during the 2002 Ujian Penilaian Sekolah Rendah (UPSR).

Education Ministry Director-General Datuk Abdul Rafie Mahat said Monday the State Education Department had been instructed to conduct a detailed investigation with regard to the allegation.

"The Ministry views the matter very seriously. We want to investigate allegations that Sekolah Kebangsaan Pulau Chapa in Kedah had substituted weak pupils with top Standard Five achievers to sit for the UPSR examinations," he said in a statement.

Well, if you can have substitute teachers …

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:36 AM
Category: Sovietisation
[0] [0]
January 21, 2004
The failing Beacon School

The Telegraph had a story last week, which I've only just read, referring to grumbles about Ofsted inspections. My favourite paragraph of the story is the final one:

A third more schools have been failed or put in the "serious weakness" category since September than over the same period last year. They include Grey Court in Richmond upon Thames, Surrey, one of the Government's Beacon Schools. The school was failed and put into special measures by an Ofsted team three months after its Beacon status had been renewed and Her Majesty's Inspectors had judged teaching there to be good enough to permit it to become a specialist computer and science college.

I am always confused about government education policy, but this time I really think I'm entitled to be. Do Her Majesty's Inspectors have nothing to do with Ofsted?

No wonder teachers don't want to be head teachers any more.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:34 PM
Category: Sovietisation
[0] [0]
January 09, 2004
"… deciphering the viability of sustaining these alternative schooling models under the context of increased state and federal demands …"

News of a paper entitled "Cyber and Home School Charter Schools: How States are Defining New Forms of Public Schooling".

Abstract:

Cyber and homeschooling charter schools have suddenly become a prominent part of the charter school movement. Such schools differ from conventional schools by delivering much of their curriculum and instruction through the use of the internet and minimizing the use of personnel and physical facilities. This paper examines how these alternative charter school models are emerging within the larger public school and charter school communities with particular attention to recent developments in California and Pennsylvania . In these two states public scrutiny of cyber and homeschooling charter schools has led to considerable debate and demands for public accountability. Of particular concern is the need to modify the regulatory framework to accommodate cyber and homeschooling charter schools as well as consideration of the differing financial allocations that are appropriate for schools that operate with reduced personnel and facilities and the division of financial responsibility between state and local educational agencies.

My instant reaction is that "of particular concern" is for people who care about "regulatory frameworks" to bugger off to Timbuktoo and die. Instead of "defining new forms of public schooling", why don't these people just let other people go ahead and do them? Especially when these schools only require "reduced personnel and facilities".

It's on the up. It's far cheaper. Before you know it there'll be no excuse for public money being spent on education at all. And then what? Answer, we must regulate the damn thing until it is good and expensive again, and only highly qualified people are allowed to do it, and in good and expensive ways.

But that's probably just me. They probably have their hearts in approximately the right place.

You can read the whole thing, in one of those absurdly unwieldy pdf files that occupy sixty pages of uncopiable text when they could have been presented as ten copiable ones.

Anyway let's have a look at the final paragraph of this thing, to see where they're coming from.

As we mentioned earlier, existing research that examines nonclassroom-based schooling is limited. New research efforts will need to focus on school-level analysis that can assess the effectiveness of instructional programs, organizational and governance structures, resource use, and the accountability mechanisms that nonclassroom-based schools employ. Ultimately, new research will assist us in deciphering the viability of sustaining these alternative schooling models under the context of increased state and federal demands.

"Deciphering the viability ..."? Alternative schooling "models"? "Under" the context ...? I still can't tell if these people are meddling class meddlers, or fighting the good fight from within the heart of the beast, and talking the beast's language in order to outwit him.

My life is too short to be ploughing through stuff like this. Maybe your life is longer.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:16 PM
Category: Free market reformsHome educationSovietisation
[0] [0]
December 10, 2003
It's not the pupils – it's the management

There's an interesting article in the Telegraph about the differences between a state comprehensive school and an independent school, by Matthew Godfrey, who went from teaching at one to teaching at the other. It's not a surprise that he found the latter school to be more civilised. But he believes that the difference was not so much that the independent school pupils were more civilised in their social backgrounds but that the management of the independent school was better. Simply, the government meddled relentlessly in the running of the state school, and didn't allow it to be run so well. Resources were not the problem. The eagerness of children to learn was not the problem. The problem was that the place was badly run.

… the vast majority of 11-year-olds who started at the comprehensive each September were conscientious and bright, too. Apart from a few notable exceptions, their parents were committed and concerned. It was a sad truth, though, that a significant minority of the children soon became troublemakers, and the number increased steadily over time. A year group that the teachers used to call the "gorgeous" year seven had become the "nightmare" year 10 by the time I left.

A lot of this gradual deterioration was a result of increasing peer pressure and other problems related to the pupils' social background. But there were so many other issues at the comprehensive – many of which had nothing to do with the pupils – that I ceased to believe the problems within the school gates were simply a result of what happened outside them.

In contrast, the independence of judgement of the people running Latymer Upper, which was the consequence of Latymer Upper itself being independent of the government, fed through to its pupils being more independent minded and confident themselves. Meanwhile, at the state comprehensive, the nationalised industry syndrome of indolent, ineffective and demoralised management likewise fed through to the attitude and conduct of the pupils. Several times, the management of the comprehensive …

… refused to allow the expulsion of highly disruptive pupils, preferring to send in expensive but largely ineffectual "consultants" to give advice and monitor teaching and learning. Instead of engendering a sense of ownership or pride in the school, they contributed to a growing culture of tiresome bureaucracy.

Consultants. This final paragraph will strike another chord with all those who are the victims of bad management, not just in schools but anywhere:

The comprehensive had a long and interesting past, too, but it was not shared with the pupils or parents. Its future goals were expressed in a hugely long-winded "mission statement", which was so filled with management gobbledegook that it meant nothing to anyone. If it can learn anything from Latymer, it is that a spirit of independence goes a long way to motivate pupils and teachers.

This blog does not have a mission statement. It just gets on with it, free from government interference.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:37 PM
Category: SovietisationThe private sector
[1] [0]
December 05, 2003
Textbook wars in Russia

A Russian high school textbook has had its official government seal of approval removed. State high schools can no longer use it. The latest edition offered the following contrasting interpretations, and invited students to form their own opinions about them:

Prague, 5 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- President Vladimir Putin is an authoritarian ruler bent on establishing a new dictatorship in Russia. President Vladimir Putin is a democrat at heart whose structural reforms are paving the way for Russia to emerge as a liberal democracy. Present your evidence and discuss.

That, in essence, is the assignment which Igor Dolutskii's textbook poses to Russian students about to graduate from high school. It is an assignment considered so objectionable that the Russian Ministry of Education's council of experts last week recommended the book's removal from the classroom. This week, the ministry confirmed the decision and formally withdrew its stamp of approval from the text. Unless the decision is reversed, Igor Dolutskii's "National History, 20th Century," which has served as a textbook for half-a-million students across Russia over the past 10 years, will be permanently shelved.

This Radio Free Europe story concludes thus:

The Russian Education Ministry says there are plenty of other historians up to the task of presenting Russia's history in a manner that is at once inspiring and patriotic without being unbalanced. It is a task that has faced Russian historians in the past. As an old joke has it: "The future is assured, it's the past that keeps changing."

Yes, the inspiring, patriotic and balanced tendency must now be falling over themselves.

Rather mischievously, I've classified this posting under "Sovietisation". I hope I'm wrong.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:45 PM
Category: Sovietisation
[0] [0]
November 13, 2003
Great news about how well Lauren Lee is doing

I don't know how much attention this story will get in the USA, but it certainly got mine:

Fourteen-year-old Lauren Lee recently got some great news in a progress report sent home from Sherwood High School in Montgomery County. The freshman got an "A" in a tough honors-level geometry course.

Not bad, thought Lauren's mother, Lauren Asbury, especially considering that her daughter never attended the school.

"She doesn't go to Sherwood," explained Mrs. Asbury. "She goes to Good Counsel High School."

Lauren, who lives in Olney, has never attended Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, but that hasn't stopped teachers she's never met from giving her high marks.

Two of the four teachers at Sherwood whose classes Lauren never attended gave her A's anyway, according to the Sept. 26 progress report school officials recently mailed home.

The mother is worried that truant officers will come calling. But what this story is really about is how increasingly, the people judging how well teachers are doing these days are themselves. School "reform" often now means London, or in this case maybe Washington, or perhaps the state capital, sending you a form which can be summarised as asking: How well are you doing? Answer: I'm doing great! Smiles all round. But what if, as here, and as in a lot of other places, the answer is a lie?

This is why I have a category called "Sovietisation", because this was how the economy of the old USSR also used to do so well. That too was an "I'm doing great!" set-up, until suddenly it very obviously wasn't.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:28 AM
Category: Sovietisation
[0] [0]
October 29, 2003
The willingness to teach but the unwillingness to let it happen

Mike Alissi of Hit & Run comments, and then Robert Clayton Dean of Samizdata follows up, on how New York's inner city school system is failing to make use of the many high quality applicants who apply to it for teaching posts. Excerpt from the Washington Post report:

A new report on the study, "Missed Opportunities: How We Keep High-Quality Teachers Out of Urban Schools," concludes that those school systems alienate many talented applicants because of rules that protect teachers already on staff and because of slow-moving bureaucracies and budgeting delays.

"As a result, urban districts lose the very candidates they need in their classrooms . . . and millions of disadvantaged students in America's cities pay the price with lower-quality teachers than their suburban peers," wrote researchers Jessica Levin and Meredith Quinn, who were given rare access to the inner workings of school districts in four U.S. cities.

It was standard procedure to let impressive applications sit in file drawers for months, the researchers found, while the candidates, needing to get their lives in order, secured work elsewhere. One district, for example, received 4,000 applications for 200 slots but was slow to offer jobs and lost out on top candidates.

This is a classic illustration of how fallacious the Fixed Quantity of Education Fallacy is. Here are lots of people wanting to supply more education but the system doesn't allow it to actually be supplied. This education doesn't go elsewhere. It goes nowhere.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:37 AM
Category: Sovietisation
[0] [0]
October 19, 2003
Thoughts on internet cheating

The Libertarian Alliance Forum has a piece on it from the Daily Telegraph of October 11th (just over a week ago) which doesn't seem to be at their website in any form, and was presumably therefore only on paper. The spacing and spelling of the text certainly says scanner rather than copy and paste. Here is all of the text we got. Presumably this is all of it, but I can't say for sure:

Pupils using internet material as their own

Exam boards have criticised teachers who let pupils present material from the internet as their own.

Examiners at two of the three boards in England say some teachers are providing their students with too much help or failing to spot copying.

Teachers mark GCSE coursework which is then "moderated" by boards which look at sample work from different grades.

They are required to sign that material submitted by pupils is their original work, but a report by Edexcel, one of the boards, found the rules were being breached.

Some teachers failed to sign authentication statements or submitted photocopied signatures. "In some cases, teachers signed [?scanning?] authentication statements for some candidates, when a cursory glance indicated collusion," said a report on the GNVQ in information and communication technology.

Thoughts.

First, this was why exams of the old-fashioned sort – with a kids imprisoned in a big exam hall for three hours with nothing but a desk, an exam paper, blank paper to write on, a pencil or pen, and a suspicious and embittered old-fashioned schoolteacher prowling around looking for rule-infractions – were invented in the first place. Not only can pupils not cheat. Neither can their teachers.

Second, teachers are now cheating, because that's the way more and more of the incentives are fixed. If your school income more and more depends (as it does) on how well your school scores in various "outcomes", then your school is extremely liable to fiddle these outcomes. The key fact is that London-based education bureaucrats are more and more "finding out" how well education is being done by saying to those doing the educating: "How well are you doing it?" Lie and you get your money. Tell the truth, and you don't get so much. This is the day-to-day reality of all those "initiatives". The School Inspectorate can't keep up.

Third, the cheating goes right to the top. There is a steady trickle of headmasters getting done for this kind of thing, and the ultimate cheat, claiming that the system is doing better than it really is, is the Secretary of Education himself, and above and beyond him, the Prime Minister.

After all, why have they switched to "continuous assessment"? More precisely, why might they now be reluctant to switch back to an assessment regime based more than now on old-fashioned exams? Because the news might, for the system as a whole, be unwelcome, is why.

This is why I have a category here called "Sovietisation". In the old USSR you just could not trust the numbers. And that's the way British education is headed.

However, fourth: the Internet now makes the administration of exams, however old-fashioned, harder. Any leaking of the contents of next week's exam by anyone anywhere becomes common knowledge to everyone everywhere. That makes the exam business a lot harder.

However, fifth: it goes deeper even than that. The internet make old-fashioned education itself a lot harder to do, because old-fashioned education is built around the fact of information scarcety. Old-fashioned education is, you might say, a solution to a problem that no longer exists.

Amen. Enjoy the rest of your Sunday.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:56 AM
Category: SovietisationThe Internet
[3] [0]
October 06, 2003
Language czarism

Lord preserve us, it seems that we now have a languages czar. Every primary school is to have a language specialist in it by the year 2010, and when that doesn't happen, the language czar can take all the blame, instead of him sharing it with the idiots who appointed himn and lumbered him with this impossible task.

As with most of the other bits of educational centralisation going on nowadays, this one is provoked by a good idea, in this case that learning foreign languages makes you, other things being equal, a better educated person.

But there is no good idea too good to turn bad if it is foisted on everybody, without anyone being allowed to say thanks but no thanks. I mean, presumably this czar is going to go around telling primary schools that they must pay for language specialists, right? Or maybe he'll give them money for their language specialists? But that will mean they have to fill in a ton of forms before they get that money, and if they don't they'll end up getting a de facto cut in their budgets. That, after all, is the pattern with all the other damn central initiatives that have flooded across the land out of London during the last decade or more. It's got so a school has to do lots of initiatives to just get its hands on a so-so budget, and about a quarter of its staff have to spend their entire days filling in all the forms.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:31 PM
Category: Sovietisation
[3] [0]
September 16, 2003
Take your pick: sovietisation or five star hotels

The Sovietisation meme is getting around:

Sports centres don't matter. Teachers do. A school is made or unmade by its teachers, and good teachers value the spirit in which they can teach more than sumptuous facilities. Part of the point of being an independent-minded teacher is that you can follow your own genius, if you have any, instead of being treated, as seems the fate of many teachers in state schools, like a Soviet coal miner whose only goal is to fulfil the latest five-year plan.

That's from a telegraph piece by Andrew Gimson on the independent sector price fixing row. There's more to education, he says, than getting and spending lots of money. Earlier paragraph:

… great schools do not depend only upon money. Many were the creation of one outstanding head teacher, who either set up a new school or else revived an old foundation. These teachers did not succeed because they had pots of money, or because they could accommodate their pupils in buildings that are scarcely distinguishable from a five-star hotel and country club. They usually succeeded in straitened circumstances, in makeshift premises, because parents and pupils realised that they understood something about education. We need many more such men and women today.

James Tooley would agree with that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:12 PM
Category: Economics of education Sovietisation
[0] [0]
September 11, 2003
A done deal that can't be done

The regulations and the initiatives pile up. Teachers have to do bureaucracy. The teachers protest. So a "deal" is done that says the teachers can just teach. But the schools have to pay other people to do bureaucracy. The schools may have a bit more money, but that was supposed to be for teaching, not bureaucracy, and in any case to get the extra money, you have to do bureaucracy. So, the schools can't make the deal work.

It has been hailed as the magic bullet, the deal that will slay the beast of bureaucracy and put an end to years of complaints from teachers that their work is choked by endless administration. The first stage of the three-year workload agreement was introduced last week, with the start of new school year.

But already it looks to be unravelling, with hundreds of schools claiming they cannot afford to employ the extra staff they need to make it work. Classroom unions have threatened industrial action unless head teachers stick to the new contractual limits imposed by the deal, but, with schools gripped in financial crisis, thousands of teachers have found themselves agreeing to do just as much cutting, pasting, typing and photocopying as ever before.

Plus, once they do employ all those bureaucrats, there'll be an interest group in place to keep the idiot bureaucratic regulations and bizarre initiatives in place for ever and ever. Education will then become "inherently" more expensive.

Don't read the national press about anything. It will only depress you.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:32 AM
Category: Sovietisation
[1] [0]
September 09, 2003
Incentives

The trouble with encouraging teachers to teach rather than become bureaucrats is that they then teach instead of becoming bureaucrats:

Heads believe one reason for the reluctance to take top jobs is the Government's attempt to persuade good teachers to stay in the classroom by offering them higher pay. A head of department may only earn £1,000 a year more than a teacher who refuses to take on extra responsibilities. Another is the high workload and increasingly bureaucratic nature of senior teaching posts.

Next: they'll encourage teachers to become bureaucrats, and then worry about the fact that they are becoming bureaucrats instead of teachers.

The word is Sovietisation. Under advanced Sovietisation (late Sovietisation?) there are so many objectives that in the end the teachers just say to hell with it, and reach for the vodka. The way to get purposelessness is to pile up the purposes until each separate purpose no longer matters. You can then play them all off against each other and do nothing.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:21 PM
Category: Sovietisation
[0] [0]
September 07, 2003
Stress

This is the sort of headline of which people say: "They don't write headlines like this any more." Except that they just did. It's further evidence that the nationalised education system of Britain is coming to resemble the old USSR.

So, next: Russian teachers, in England, out of their skulls on vodka, driven crazy by quotas.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:29 PM
Category: SovietisationThe reality of teaching
[0] [0]
August 13, 2003
Alison Wolf on the Sovietisation of education

I've already mentioned here Alison Wolf's book Does Education Matter?, and have also quoted from it in a Samizdata posting. Here's another chunk, from the concluding chapter. And for this I already have a category classification nice and ready.

The last twenty-five years have been the heyday of education policy directed purposefully towards economic ends. One result has been a fixation on quantitative targets which allow governments to monitor progress and pronounce success. These necessarily emphasize what can be easily counted and easily measured; so we have policies intended, above all, to increase numbers, whether these be of qualifications gained or of students enrolled. The most extreme manifestations of this trend – such as outcome-related funding which paid people for NVQs delivered, or franchising schemes which offered backpackers free scuba-diving courses – have foundered because they so visibly undermined quality and invited abuse. But the basic principle of targets has not vanished. How could it? For this is the quintessential approach of any centrally run and directed system which measures success by quantity. If you believe that more education equals more growth, and that government can and should deliver one through the other, then, like a compass needle to the pole, you will be drawn towards quantitative targets, whether they are the NVQs of the early 1990s or the 50 per cent enrolment in higher education that currently enthuses our political classes.

This approach is precisely analogous to the way in which Soviet planners ran their economy, and it has precisely the same drawbacks. Numerical targets have to be concerned with things that can be counted easily (like tractors or examination grades), not with more complex attributes which require judgement and are open to debate (such as whether those tractors work at all well, or the quality of different curricula). In a centrally funded, target-driven, top-down organization, the main and inevitable concern of lower-level functionaries is the satisfaction of their paymasters. If the things they are being asked to produce are genuinely simple to define and inspect, then the system may indeed produce them – albeit not very efficiently. But if they are complex and difficult to measure, like the quality of a university degree, then the effects of such systems tend to be pernicious.

This is especially true when one marries centralized, target-driven controls with financial pressures. That, of course, is exactly the situation that modern education systems find themselves in. As we saw in Chapters 6 and 7, the huge expansion of university education has been accompanied by a constant downward pressure on costs and on real levels of spending. These pressures are not specific to any particular political party or any particular country: they are inherent in any large-scale expansion of state-funded post-compulsory education. They are most obvious in higher education, because that is where change has been so recent and rapid. But the repercussions are not confined to this level.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:50 PM
Category: Higher educationSovietisation
[0] [0]
June 18, 2003
Encouragement

Today's Independent:

More than half of all independent schools still do not allow state school pupils to share their facilities, despite the Government's efforts to encourage more partnership between the two sectors.

Encourage. Partnership.

And almost one in 10 of the private schools which have collaborated with the state sector admitted charging more than the going rate for facilities to make a profit from state schools, a survey of 900 fee-paying schools found.

Collaborated.

If you want to buy something from me which I don't want to sell to you, I too will charge more than the "going rate". I usually have my price, but if I really like my something, my price will be high. But, it is mine. I can charge whatever I like. You have the freedom to say no. What would we say of someone who insisted on "buying" something from you, but insisted also on only paying the "going rate"? In other circumstances this is called "compulsory purchase", and the words "compulsory" and "purchase" are often followed by the word "order".

Almost 70 per cent of fee-paying schools reported that they had not opened their specialist teaching facilities such as classrooms, science laboratories, or drama studios to local state schools, according to the study by the Independent Schools Council (ISC).

Could it be that they don't actually want to open their specialist teaching facilities? Makes sense to me. They sound expensive, and complicated to mend if they get broken.

The ISC released the study as part of the sector's campaign to be allowed to keep its charitable status.

Charitable status. Nothing like tax breaks to keep people in line. Command and control lives

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:52 PM
Category: Sovietisation
[2] [0]
June 14, 2003
The maths isn't adding up

More news of the shortage of people willing to be teachers from the Independent. Maths teacher Stephen McCormack (his title is "Can you find the teachers to sack?" - lovely) writes:

Pupils need to build on relationships with their teachers. If these are absent, the effect on learning and behaviour is marked. This, for me, is where successive governments have failed in the long-term development of adolescents.

It would be bad enough if confined to poor and crumbling inner city housing estates, but it is not. Take Surrey: an affluent county with stable schools and academic tranquillity? Not so. Surrey's turnover rate is the highest in the country.

The current drive to do something in London might have its good points but it will undoubtedly make things worse in the surrounding counties. I am not saying that nothing is being done. One area where there has been a clear improvement is in the numbers attracted to teacher training. Applicants for places on PGCE courses are up, due in part to the bursaries on offer. But it's no good recruiting and training teachers if they don't stay to do the job.

Three years ago I was one of 13 idealistic people starting a maths PGCE course at a London college. Only seven of us will still be teaching in or near London this September. Of the rest, three have dropped out, two have left the UK and one has gone to teach in Devon. Not all schools face these problems. I could also point to numerous schools where turnover is low, and where most vacancies attract enough candidates. Fine. But that doesn't alter the fact that thousands of children are getting a raw deal because of our inability to get staffing right.

McCormack still thinks in terms of failure by "successive governments", rather than by the very idea of government, and says that in France things are done much better, and maybe that's so. But the story I hear is that things there aren't getting any better either.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:15 AM
Category: MathsSovietisation
[0] [0]
June 10, 2003
Crowding out in the exam industry

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

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

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

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

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

Existing exams are not satisfactory, says Ms. Rickards.

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

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

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

Instead of this, which is what happens now:

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

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

And it gets worse.

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

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

Obviusly I coodent mis that parergrarf.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hav er nise dei.

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:22 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsSovietisation
[2] [0]
June 06, 2003
The headmaster shrugged

Whatever else you read about education in the next few days, read this (from the latest Spectator), if you haven't already. Sample paragraph:

It isn’t just the ‘papersomeness’ (to quote the latest buzzword) of my job. It is the accountability. Fair enough, somebody needs to check on my competency and make sure that I am not financing my own extravagant lifestyle with school funds. But with so many stakeholders I can build my own stockade. I am accountable to the parents, who can blame me for anything and everything that goes wrong in their lives, because I am an easy target and expected to be accessible. I am accountable to governors, who have immense responsibilities but are not required to undergo any training whatsoever to equip them to discharge them. I am accountable to the LEA in County Hall, who seem to think they can dictate how I spend my time. I am accountable to the editor of the local newspaper, to all the solicitors in the town, to the consultants in the local hospital, to the police, to social services, and to the people who live nearby, all of whom have told me in no uncertain terms how to do my job. I am accountable to Mr Clarke. I am accountable to Ofsted, who come every two years on average and settle in for a week. The only people it appears I am not accountable to, whose lives I am directly affecting day in day out, are the pupils themselves. Yet it is they who are suffering from the actions of everybody else. So from now on I will be accountable only to myself, to my wife, and to God, because I have resigned.

I don't often refer approvingly to the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, if only because so many others with opinions similar to mine seem to do this all the time. But for the experience of this headmaster the phrase "Atlas shrugged" (the title of one of Rand's most famous novels) does seem very appropriate. This really is like one of Rand's put-upon railway workers quietly slipping away into the countryside, never to work on the railways again until sanity is restored.

Who was the Greek god of teaching? Or the teaching equivalent of Atlas? Anyone? Whoever he was, he is shrugging.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:39 AM
Category: Sovietisation
[0] [0]
March 26, 2003
A novelist overwhelmed by paperwork

Here's some more chapters and verses on the theme of how excessive form-filling and paperwork is driving people out of the teaching profession, this time from novelist and journalist Emma Lee-Potter, who fancied the idea of trying to become an English and Media Studies lecturer. Until, that is, she actually started studying for it. The idea of a journalist and novelist exercising her own judgement as to what it might make sense to teach young people, and how to set about doing it, seems to me very obvious. But that isn't how things are done nowadays:

No, what infuriated me was the teaching profession's emphasis on self-evaluation and reflective practice. Every lesson plan had to be accompanied by written rationales for the teaching methods we had chosen. Tutor and student feedback on every lesson we taught had to be repeatedly scrutinised and analysed – not only verbally but on special self-evaluation forms.

And this didn't just mean checking that you had fulfilled your aims and objectives – there were issues such as whether the seating, lighting and classroom temperature were up to scratch, whether handouts and acetates were easy to read and what teaching principles the lesson demonstrated. We then had to draw up detailed action plans for future teaching. I don't know of any other profession where you sit down at the end of the day and fill in a self-evaluation form. Isn't it common sense to learn from your mistakes and try to avoid making them again in future?

The biggest bugbear was having to keep a private "reflective diary" or "learning log" to record your thoughts and feelings about your "teaching experiences". Looking back at mine, it is full of angrily scrawled comments such as "increasingly unsure" and "so irritated – this doesn't seem relevant to teaching". I'm all for learning from experience and striving to do better next time round but in a profession that's already overflowing with paperwork, it seemed mad to create yet more.

Sounds like compulsory blogging, doesn't it? No doubt that too will come.

When you hear the word "safeguards", this is what you must imagine. Another form for someone to fill in.

The bottom line is that teachers are not now trusted by the government, and the result of all the schemes to force these untrusted people to do their job properly is to make it impossible for them to do their job properly. The good ones, like Emma Lee-Potter, leave. The ones who remain are the ones who would find any other job harder to come by than talented persons like her. They're second-raters, in other words. So the official education system degenerates still more, which causes further distrust. Which requires more "safeguards", etc. etc., until meltdown in achieved. Being a legally recognised teacher becomes literally impossible.

I have no direct experience of this downward spiral, but I am reading and hearing so many people writing and saying this stuff that I am starting to believe that western official education really may be heading for Soviet-style collapse.

Sadly, this collapse will probably be disguised. Out here in reality-world, people are learning all the time, under their own steam, just the way I'm learning under my own steam about official education. There'll be a completely hopeless official education system, the wreckage of which floats in an ocean of unofficial, self-powered progress and success. And nobody except me will notice.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:58 PM
Category: Sovietisation
[0] [0]
March 12, 2003
Breaking point

I missed this piece in education.co.uk from way back. It's called "Why an award-winning young teacher wants to quit", and you know what the piece will say, to the point where you hardly need to read it. But it's worth a read nevertheless.

"There are too many initiatives, they are like polyfilla. They [the government] shove an initiative into a problem and it just leaves a mess. I love what I do and would stay if I had a choice, but what I do and what I want to do are teach, and you can't do it with the targets and initiatives and the expectations from government and society. That's why I'm at breaking point."

That was January 7th of this year. I wonder if breaking point has now been and gone.

Getting a prize is no substitute for being allowed to do the job you love properly.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:59 PM
Category: Sovietisation
[0] [0]
January 14, 2003
Another target crumbles towards absurdity (and mine starts to look a bit shaky as well)

Well I finished that other homework that I was working on. But once again I am rushing my duties here more than somewhat. But it didn't take me long to find a juicy quote, seconds into the Guardian education page, on the constant theme here of Sovietisation.

The government's targets for extra university places must not be met by increasing the numbers on "mickey mouse" courses, the higher education minister, Margaret Hodge, warned yesterday.

There they go again. They set up a "target", and right away the thing ceases to be a sane measurement of anything sane. Here's how many courses we want! Oh, but did we mention that we want them to be sensible courses, not silly ones?

Okay that fulfils my daily target of one posting however mickey mouse every weekday.

Now let me see if I can't do another one, and exceed my quota!!!

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:12 PM
Category: Sovietisation
[0] [0]
January 03, 2003
The unintended consequences of central educational planning

I've not been healthy enough to say anything profound of an educational nature today, but luckily, Paul Marks had this to say, in a comment on this yesterday over at samizdata. I trust he won't object to me lifting the whole thing and reproducing it here:

The context here was that Dr Tucker was dealing with a study from the University of Arizona that showed an inverse relationship between a rise in the new test scores and performance in SAT tests.

In short as children were put through endless rote learning to get them through the new "high powered tests" so teaching children general problem solving skills ("how to think") went out of the window.

Dr Tucker was using this study (which was undertaken by statists - not libertarians) to show that the conservative reform plan for government schools (lots of factual tests on core subjects and teaching geared to pass the tests) was having unintended consequences.

Another problem was the practice of High Schools encouraging children they thought would fail the tests to drop out - so that the school test average would be higher (and it would get more money under the "market socialist" incentives that the conservatives believed in).

It was much like the old Soviet practice when they wished to reduce the death rate in the hospitals - kick out the people who are going to die.

Dr Tucker's basic point was that a government school system will not work - whether it is the hands of liberals or conservatives.

In other words, as soon as you decide that one particular symptom of the nice world you want should be maximised, then at that exact moment it ceases to be any use as a measurement of niceness or of progress towards niceness.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:54 PM
Category: Sovietisation
[0] [0]
December 13, 2002
The Brains Trust on educational Sovietisation

For a measured view of new British government proposals to entend the powers of Devil Head Teachers to discipline devil-parents for the transgressions of their devil-children, you need look no further than the Brains Trust:

The government has today announced plans to radically extend the role of state school heads, and give them increased powers over parents in an attempt to improve public discipline.

New ideas involve raising the profile of school heads in their community by a series of new measures. These include detaining parents after school for an hour if their children are "too cheeky by half", giving 100 lines to any parent seen dropping litter in the street within sight of their child, and fining parents for instances of repetitive failure to attend parent-teacher meetings or school concerts. Heads will also be expected to enforce traffic calming measures within a two-mile radius of the school. Their powers being extended to fine mothers for "bad parking" and fathers for "driving aggressively" in any German-manufactured car. Each school will retain the revenues gained from the fines levied, and will be allowed to spend them on building repairs and cream cakes for the staff room.

The serious point here is that a basically malfunctioning system is conferring ever more draconian powers on the latest group of people who are being begged to save it, in this case Head Teachers.

I mean it about Sovietisation. In the old USSR there was an entire class of management, just below the Polibureau, with powers and privileges fit for Roman Emperors, whose basic task was to Make The Bloody System Work. That legendary guy who ran the Soviet space programme was one of these superior beings. So was the famed Soviet Film Supremo Sergei Bondarchuk, as was Evgeny Mravinsky, the legendary long-time boss of the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, a favourite Soviet-era super-achiever of mine. For a while, the best of such monsters do keep things semi-achieving, although at a frightful cost in frayed nerves and wrecked lives. (I've often wondered what happened to Leningrad POers who persistently played wrong notes.) But eventually the system collapses.

And another Merry Christmas to you all. My, I am in a nice mood today. Still, it's nearly the weekend, and then you'll all be able to run about and do as you please.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:20 PM
Category: Sovietisation
[1] [0]