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Chronological Archive • December 15, 2002 - December 21, 2002
December 21, 2002
Thoughts on a death threat which wasn't

Mike Peach is onto something of a story, namely the "death threat" that has been expressed by one of a chat-posse of exasperated teachers blowing off steam in the TES chat room. Mike recycles the quote. One teacher, it seems, from time to time yearns for

"a large handgun ... to blow the head off of the first pupil who has failed to shut up/do homework/sit properly at their desk/speak politely to me".

Well, maybe this is a story, but in my opinion the story is not that this man (I'm guessing he is a man) is a murdering psychopath. It is that he is only one of thousands upon thousands of stressed-out teachers who are finding life harder and harder, caught between an ever less deferential populace, ever more attracted by the alternative enticements of electronic pop culture, and an increasingly meddlesome central government which bombards state teachers with bureaucratic torments as never before in English educational history. Yet these teachers are expected to make the sort-of almost completely compulsory, "inclusive" (i.e. no-expulsions), state education system just keep on rolling as if nothing bad was happening to it.

The other day there was a story about how a struggling school in the north of England had gone to the immense trouble and expense of recruiting a couple of new teachers from Jamaica. In Jamaica, old-fashioned education, at least for the more aspirational pupils and teachers in the better schools, lives on, and our Northerners were trying to import a slice of that old magic.

It's the same story, I think. The story being what a ghastly job it can be, teaching in a British state school. The locals can't or won't do it any more, and certainly not with the old ease and confidence and contentment.

Remember also that comments in computer chat rooms, and for that matter many blog postings and blog comments, are put together and "published" a lot more hastily than something like an article in the old Times Education Supplement, and thoughts that are how can one put it? somewhat unprocessed will find their way into virtual print. That, after all, is part of the point of these things.

If people in the Old Media decide to try to make something of this, along the lines of the above quote being a real death threat, then maybe the real story should be the deliberately misleading malevolence of the Old Media. They take a hasty little remark which was at least honest about a real problem, parlay it into a major row by bouncing it off some special interest groups who also benefit from pretending that the "death threat" was the real thing, gouge ever more undignified apologies and retractions from, in this case, the TES website editors, and then report the whole mess as if it just happened by itself, when they truth is that they created it themselves pretty much out of thin air.

This kind of thing is okay if the original blurter-out was the US Senate Majority Leader. (That's a recent real case this man has just blurted himself right out of the job by saying something racially unacceptable). For a teacher telling it like it is, and for a website trying to go on allowing people to do this, it would be cruel and stupid and would solve nothing.

Nevertheless, I'm sure that (the selfish, careerist, ambitious part of) Nick Farrell of computer active on line is hoping that things do proceed along exactly the above lines. Farrell's piece (thanks to Mike for the link) ends thus:

A TES spokesman told the BBC that the teachers were doing what some might do in the pub after school, and were simply venting their frustrations by playing a silly fantasy game.

Two things of note there. One, TES "spokesmen" are already talking to the BBC about this, and two, they are already conceding that it is "silly" for the truth of what it can feel like to be a state teacher to see just a little bit of the light of day. So already the Media have got the Human Beings on the run here. Already there is a trace of blood in the water.

Yet how long before some crazed prematurely retired teacher sets fire to a school? And when that happens, will it emerge that several times the poor wretch tried to say how it felt being a teacher, but they told him to shut up and to stop rocking the boat?

And before I stop, one more point. I freely admit that I'm grinding my various axes here, just like everyone else in this story, or what there is of it so far. By paying my little bit of attention to this (so far) non-story, I'm doing my little bit to stir it all up. So it would now suit me (i.e. this blog) quite nicely if the Media proceeded to do exactly what I have said earlier that they shouldn't.

But my "official" opinion, so to speak the reason why I find this story so interesting, and the thing that I think it proves or at least illustrates very nicely - is that compulsory "Prussian" education for everyone is now an unsustainable system in a country like Britain, and is in terminal decline here. I regard the personal travails of individuals in that system, both teachers and pupils, as symptoms of a deeper malaise, and not something that can be corrected by treating these offending individuals as one-off personal aberrations and just bashing on regardless with the same old system - except staffed instead by Jamaicans (or for that matter by Australians) at ten times the cost that it used to cost.

Even the new role played by the Media in all this just means that education, like everything else, now takes place in a completely different wider context. Telling the Media to drop dead and stop being the Media is, after all, no answer to anything.

Yet plenty of activities now proceed very nicely in this changed context, and they use the Media to do even better. State education just isn't one of them.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:06 PM
Category: The reality of teaching
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Look and see

I've just done another of my Ain't Capitalism Great? stories over at samizdata, which has obvious educational implications, especially for Africa. And all those implications are good.

An Oxford physics professor by the name of Joshua Silver has invented a pair of adjustable spectacles which enable you to see well all your life, without ever having to visit an optician, just by twiddling a couple of knobs on the side of your spectacles every so often.

The combination of lots of bad eyesight and dreadfully inadequate optical services is a serious educational barrier in Africa. For many Africans all our arguments about phonics versus look-and-say mean very little indeed, because many Africans can't even look and see. Well, it looks as if for many of them this is about to change.

The company which Professor Silver has set up to make and market this wonder invention is called Adaptive Eyecare, and I recommend a visit to that website to learn more.

Many stories on this blog are about the fumblings and bumblings of politicians. You sense that not even they expect what they're doing to achieve very much, and the rest of us mostly assume that it's futile. But this story could not be more different.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:45 AM
Category: Technology
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December 20, 2002
Home schooling just do it

My profuse thanks to Michael Peach for linking to this Guardian piece on Home Schooling by Stephen Cook, which I completely missed when it first came out.

In Britain, the internet and the media have ensured that an increasing number of people are aware that there is no legal requirement to send children to school. In England and Wales, you don't even have to tell the local education authority if you home teach from the start. If you withdraw children from school, you have to tell the authority, who will probably send someone along to "inspect" what you do. In Scotland you have to get the consent, rarely refused but often delayed, of the education service.

Let me repeat the key sentence here, for the benefit of all those who still assume that here in Britain school attendance is compulsory: "In England and Wales, you don't even have to tell the local education authority if you home teach from the start."

This means, as the Department for Education and Skills discovered in a feasibility study, that there is no reliable way of counting the number of home-educated children. Estimates for England and Wales range from 12,000 to 84,000, which would be about 1% of the school population. In Scotland, the home education pressure group Schoolhouse estimates there are about 4,000.

As Cook explains well, some like to count as many home schoolers as they can find, to prove that the existing education system is doing badly, and needs to change:

One attitude within the home education movement is to play the figures up in the hope that this will lead to changes in the formal education system, regarded by some as seriously past its sell-by date.

But there is much to be said for everyone, including and especially the DES, remaining ignorant of the true numbers involved.

Another is to play the figures down for fear that a busybody state machine will see them as a threat and start to crack down.

Exactly so.

It really is a very good piece. Over on samizdata I've been ruminating on the relationship between the blogosphere and the Old Media. This piece illustrates just how far the blogosphere has to go before it seriously matches the accurate and to-the-point reporting of the Old Media at their best. It also illustrates, for all the fulminations of many of my ideological confreres, what a very good newspaper and internet operation the Guardian can often be.

Professor Alan Thomas, of the Institute of Education at London University, complains that home schooled children can become "socially isolated". But of course, the last thing many home schooling parents worry about is that their children will miss out on the socialisation process of the average school. For many, that's the whole idea. But more interestingly, Thomas reflects on how home schooled children seem to learn.

What excites him is the discovery that children at home do not learn in the same way as those in school. He says they learn in fast, unpredictable bursts which are not amenable to conventional timetabling; this, he says, could bring about "the most fundamental change in our understanding of children's learning since the advent of universal schooling in the 19th century". If the lessons and benefits of home-education could be understood and taken on board by the system, fewer people might want to do it and the system might benefit.

Speaking for myself, I too learned in unpredictable bursts. The only difference that conventional schooling made to this process was that it got more or less seriously in the way. And I love the implication that "we" are only now learning this. But he's on the right track. I suppose.

So why does it bother me that people like Thomas are starting to take a sympathetic interesting in home schooling?

Mike Fortune-Wood of Education Otherwise sums up my sense of unease, with a pronouncement quoted at the very end of the Guardian piece which is a hell of a lot creepier than he seems to realise:

"The cat's out of the bag and people know it's a legal option," he says. "All kinds of people are doing it and if it continues growing like this, the authorities are either going to have stop it or embrace it."

Stop it. Or "embrace" it. I don't know which is worse.

No, what the authorities are "going to have to do" is just keep out of it. That would be the best arrangement by far.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:25 AM
Category: Home education
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December 19, 2002
"Compulsory education is about compulsion not education"

There has been the mother of all comment battles concerning a posting yesterday by David Carr on samizdata, on the subject of the jailed mother of two truanting girls:

A mother-of-two has been jailed for failing to prevent her daughters from playing truant from school.

The Brighton woman was sentenced to seven days in prison and is only the second parent in the country to be jailed because her children skipped lessons.

Says David:

I am at a loss to understand how these two children, or the society of which they are a part, have anything to gain from being forced back into a situation where they are likely to be nothing except sullen and resentful prisoners? Very few people take the view that forcing human beings to work in state-owned factories on government-mandated projects will be in any way beneficial yet nearly everybody is entrenched in the dogmatic belief that doing the very same thing to human beings under the age of 18 will be nothing but beneficial.

This is an orthodoxy to which I once held myself: education is good, but children don't realise this. Therefore prescribed and generally agreed packages of learning must be forced on them for their own good. Is this true? I must confess that I have no ready alternatives available nor any glib answers on what parents should do instead. But I do know that I am increasingly unsettled by noxious enforcements of the kind reported above and by the quiet, persuasive ideas of people like Alice Bachini.

Compulsory education is about compulsion not education. It is a received wisdom to which I am finding it increasingly difficult to subscribe and which I believe should be revisited and re-examined at a systemic level.

The comments that this posting provoked are as contrary and as impassioned as any on samizdata that I can remember. For instance, Peter Cuthbertson:

I realise this won't move you one iota, but when this happened last time, both the truants in question started attending school again, and the mother admitted that making her face her responsibilities in such a way was the right thing to do.

If you have a principled objection to compulsory education, this won't change your mind. But clearly plenty of good can be derived from such rulings. I hope to see more of them.

"SmilinK" agrees:

Asking children if they *want* to go to school is insane. No one wants to go somewhere where they are forced to work, where they are judged by the results of said work, and where negative consequences ensue for poor effort. It's always easier to sit at home and watch the tube. Compulsory education prevents people from making that most erroneous choice, through ignorance or sloth.

To let children decide for themselves, with their still-growing brains and total inability to plan ahead, would be truly immoral. Not to mention the degradation of their lives as a result.

Mike Peach:

All a child needs is a desire to learn. All that school does from day one is tell children not to have a desire to learn but to do as they are told.

I despair of your attitude. Instead of asking the question "Do you want to go to school?" ask them if they want to learn and the answer will be resounding "Yes". That is until they have been to school and had the desire to learn knocked out of them.

I could go on and on but unfortunately the only way you will see the light is to take the "school" out of yourself.

By the way, a year ago I would have agreed with your view. However, having had my son out of school for that time now and watched him grow and develop into a rational, independent and free spirited individual I can confirm that "school" is nothing but a confidence trick and a totally illogical one at that.

And so it goes on, and on and on. Something tells me the various teams aren't going to convince one another. For what it's worth, the dominant opinion seemed to favour compulsory education, but to oppose state provision. Peach and Bachini versus the Rest. This seems to be emerging as the pattern in this corner of the blogosphere, with the surprise switch by Carr being the one change.

Me? For the moment my attitude is: Man Who Sit On Fence See Further. I'm thinking about it. Because I'm sorry, but I see genuine merit in both teams.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:13 PM
Category: Parents and children
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December 18, 2002
The right to compulsory education in India

Cards on the table. This is a holding post, to make sure that something goes up on December 18th, in case I don't manage anything more substantial later, during the real day itself, so to speak, during which I will be very busy.

My text and link is from and to the Hindu Times, who report on a "right" which is to be forced upon the children of India which, so goes the plan, they will have no right to resist:

New Delhi, Dec. 16. (UNI): Education for children between 6-14 years of age has become a fundamental right under the Constitution of India.

The President has given his assent to the Constitution (93rd Amendment) Bill, 2002, to this effect and the same has since been notified in the Gazette, an official press note said today.

Article 21 of the Constitution providing for fundamental right to life and personal liberty has been amended to make education up to high school a fundamental right for all citizens of India.

This amendment will be enforced from a date to be notified by the Department of Education in the Ministry of Human Resource Development.

All State governments and Union Territory administrations, will, thereafter make arrangements for compulsory education for all children throughout the country to herald India's march to hundred per cent literacy of its citizens.

It is depressing to read a report in which a right is to be enforced upon those who are supposedly to have it, without any sense that a contradiction of any sort might be involved.

And the report is also depressing because India is now one of the countries where truly voluntary education is spreading very fast. I suppose it was too good to last. Making education compulsory will corrupt it, and corrupt the "private sector" suppliers who will doubtless now be queueing up to supply the slighly less bad bits of this "service", as well as the utter rubbish product that will actually be paid for by the government.

I wonder if part of this story is that the current strongly Hindu nationalist Indian government doesn't want the Muslims of India to control their own education as much as some of them are controlling it now. Because whenever a government says that something is compulsory, they get to describe what that thing is. Maybe there are Indians or expert India watchers out there who can elucidate. Mixing religion, politics and education can result in some very hot dishes.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:21 AM
Category: Compulsion
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December 17, 2002
Teachers who (despite themselves) support home education

Michael Peach has found himself being commented on at the TES website. That's Times Education Supplement I presume, not the Til Eulenspiegel Society. (And I imagine there may be a bit of an overlap in the concerns of these two enterprises.)

Michael reproduces a few of the derisively critical things about home education that various teachers have said at this website, but in some of these comments I find comfort:

"I had a terrible irreverent thought: these parents would be a nightmare, so thank God we don't have to deal with them."

"Thanks for directing me to this site. It does almost read like a parody. I live in an area which is awash with home educators. The current crop have kids who we can be grateful aren't in the schools. Foul mouthed, "dyslexic", arrogant and precious. A lucky escape."

"This stuff is great. home education! whatever will the government think of next to ease classroom overcrowding? Well done Tony!"

Okay, these teachers are, in my opinion and no doubt in Michael's also, arrogant, supercilious idiots. But give them some credit. I believe I detect here an understanding on their part of the grief that the abolition of the right to "education otherwise" might bring to the British teaching profession. I mean, imagine having to deal, day after day after day, with the likes of Michael Peach and his brood, full of intellectual self confidence, clever, independent minded, always wanting to do their own thing, angry as hornets at being incarcerated day after day after day. Well, the good news is, some of these not totally idiotic teachers have imagined that. And they don't like the idea.

Good. People who loathe and despise one another shouldn't be obliged to have to spend any time with each other at all. That's one of the absolute best things about freedom. If you hate somebody, you can just stay away from them.

In the coerced society, on the other hand, the society in which people have to go where they're sent and have to stay where they're put, it doesn't matter how much they hate one another, they have to go on enduring each other's company. This is one of the worst things about tyranny, educational or otherwise.

In a sane world, no teacher should be obliged to teach anyone whom he or she really did not want to teach. Educational compulsion can often be a horror for teachers, not just for pupils.

There's far more to freedom than merely having a nice washing machine, very nice though that is. And there are far worse things about tyranny than merely having to do your washing by hand, very tiresome though that is.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:14 AM
Category: Home education
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Why bother with schools?

Well, there's nothing like a pure accident to stir up a bit of ruckus. This blog goes on the blink, so I shove a recent posting for it instead into the blazing limelight that is samizdata.net, and the comments haven't stopped. And now comes this email as well, which I reproduce now in full to encourage more:


In your blog on Samizdata that would have been on the ed blog if it had been up, you wrote:

" If the teacher has the knowledge, and the student wants it and is ready to receive it, then hand it over."

A niggling point, but one worth considering, I think, is the 'bucket theory' of education that this sentence reveals. While the teacher might have the knowledge, the student is interested in the *information* so that they can create the knowledge for their self.

I appreciate the effort you put into the ed blog - and maybe it is just the nature of the beast these days, that education is thought to equal school and teachers as an essential part of education, but please don't go down the road of bloggin about schools and teachers all the time, rather than real education. :)

just a thought,

The whole point of answering student questions when they are asked is precisely because students are not just buckets. The developing, active thinking of a student means that there are those moments when he is ready to receive a particular sort of okay information, which is why he asks for it at that moment, and why it makes sense to answer the question when it's asked.

However as a metaphor to describe a certain sort of child reacting to a certain sort of teacher, " information bucket" or even "knowledge bucket" is not that bad. Successful traditional teachers, the ones with a whiff of showbiz about them as well as old-fashioned knowledge of their subject, do indeed do something very like pour stuff into the minds of their student audiences. You get this a lot. You get people like lars saying that something doesn't happen, when what he really means is that in his opinion it shouldn't. Okay, different students receive and understand different bits of the performance, because if they are buckets then they are very complicated and rather selective buckets depending on what else they know and what they now would like to know, and also depending on which bits of their brains happen to be developing at that moment. Nevertheless, setting up a Niagara Falls of information, even of knowledge, and hoping that some of it gets caught in some of the buckets is a not totally contemptible way to educate.

As for "education equals school and teachers", well, that may not be where all or even all that much education takes place these days - as a proportion of all of it - but it's a big part of the story. And there is also the vitally important matter of what children really do learn at schools, the bad stuff I mean.

It's true that in recent days schools have, as it happens, been my main focus, but earlier I happened to be concentrating more on where computers and technology fitted into the education picture. I had a spell of focussing on maths teaching, both inside and outside schools. And there will be other little spells of interest like this focussing on all sorts of other things, many of which lars may be entertained by, and many of which he may disapprove of.

But I'm going to go on writing about schools and teachers and classrooms, (a) because it is an interesting subject in its own right, and also (b) because debates and stresses and strains within the official school system could lead to very big and very good changes in the future.

The dominant beliefs of the current education profession ever since the nineteen sixties have contained a strong libertarian strand, which is one of the very big reasons why traditional education is, for so many people, near to collapse. Remember that posting I did about what most educational researchers now believe. And maybe you also remember the two comments, from Michael Peach and from Alice Bachini, pointing out that the logic of this research is: forget about "schools" and just let children learn as and when they feel inclined, and in a far nicer place than most schools are? So the people who are now running the existing system actually don't really believe in keeping it going, and in many cases they don't believe in it at all.

However, what they do believe in is mostly too incoherent and self-contradictory to achieve anything, except harm to existing institutions.

Many "progressives", for example, believe in "freedom" but not in free markets, that is to say they believe in freedom but not in one of its most inevitable and characteristic consequences, a consequence which can only be eliminated by trampling all over freedom. Such progressives are thus incapable of devising a viable real world alternative to traditional schools, just as they are incapable of devising real world alternatives to anything else. However, the existing school system does allow them to push their anti-free-market propaganda, even as they fret about the fact that they are "pushing" anything at all, so they settle, very half-heartedly, for that. PC Prussianism, you might say.

Others react to the manifest failure of "progressive education" (i.e. the attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable) by lurching back to the old-fashioned orthodoxies, but in defiance of all that research which says, very persuasively, that there ought to be a different and better way to do things.

The only coherent opponents of traditional schooling whom I know of - the only coherent educational libertarians - are the home-schoolers and the non-schoolers, like Peach and Bachini, and, happily, many more besides.

I can perfectly understand why lars wants to turn his back on all the confusion and the bad faith, the coercion and the misery, that seethes within official schools. But I don't. I find it interesting, and I don't feel inclined to ignore it, any more than I ignored the Gulag Archipelago during the Cold War. I find it fertile soil to plant different and better ideas. If all libertarians just ignored the entire world of "official" education policy and official education research, and above all official education in the form of the official schools, they'd miss all this intellectual and (it's not too strong a word for the agonies often involved) spiritual turmoil.

So I bother with schools partly for the same reason that all subversives study the thing which they oppose. Know your enemy. But also - unlike lars? - I don't actually think that all schools are as bad as some of them are, that life at school for all children is as bad as it is for some children. I think that if there were no compulsory school attendance, and total consumer choice in education in life itself - both for parents and for children, some institutions would thrive that would look remarkably like the schools we have now. There'd be the same sort of desks all pointing towards the front, the same sort of self-important pedagogues at the front holding forth, the same sort of testing to see what if anything had been learned. The difference is that there would also be the right to ignore all this if you didn't care for it, and the right to shop around between competing suppliers if something like this would serve your purpose.

Meanwhile, I think that all over the official school desert, there are oases of goodness to be found, of the sort that have an honourable future in a far more libertarian world. I am a subversive, but I am not a revolutionary. In fact I despise and detest revolutions. Revolutions are collective acts of self-indulgence which sacrifice people on the altar of mankind. I think I've somewhat strayed from lars' objections here. But never mind. Time I stopped.

Here endeth the lesson.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:40 AM
Category: How to teach
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December 16, 2002
The virtue of imperfect but persistent teaching

I did a posting earlier today for this blog. No, yesterday, it's now just past midnight. But during the brief time in the afternon when I might have posted it here, this blog was not working. I believe the "server" was "down". The technology involved in all this stuff is not my strong point, although I am learning about it, slowly. So I put this posting on samizdata.net instead.

It was about a teacher who, in my opinion and if my understanding of her own classroom report was anything to go by, had done rather less well than either she or Joanne Jacobs thought she had, although I'd be the first to admit that I probably wouldn't have done any better in similar circumstances and I dare say far worse.

One of the samizdata commenters thought that the lady I had criticised ought to get the sack. I'm guessing that he has his own educational "issues" with such people. But if what I wrote here on Saturday (in the posting just below this one), about a school severely afflicted by excessively high staff turnover, is anything to go by, having imperfect teachers who nevertheless stick around and do their best is a far better policy than sacking any teacher who ever makes a mistake, however minor, or for that matter even sacking one who exhibits a persistent weakness. What if this teacher can be a sarcastic so-and-so but sure talks up a storm when she's explaining (as she was) about Gutenberg?

I recall a remark made by the head teacher in Vile Bodies, the novel by Evelyn Waugh. He greets the novel's young protagonist, who is to start teaching at his boarding school deep in the countryside, thus: "I'm well aware that no-one seeks employment at an establishment like this without a very good reason which he is anxious to conceal." Something like that. Most of us can remember times when we've learned things from most unlikely and often severely imperfect and very nasty people.

I hope that the teacher whom I criticised over on samizdata does what I'm sure her pupils are doing, despite any mistakes that she may or may not be making (after all this was only my opinion), which is: learn, and improve, and get a bit smarter at what she's doing, day by day. If what I have written here about the educational value of blogging to the blogger is true, then she definitely will.

Maybe she'll read my samizdata posting. And maybe she'll even learn something from me and from those commenters about how to do her job a little bit better, although of that I am less confident. Personally I hate being criticised, especially when the criticism is constructive.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:38 AM
Category: How to teach
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