E-mails and comments welcome from teachers and learners of all ages.  
Chronological Archive • January 26, 2003 - February 01, 2003
January 31, 2003

Does anyone read this blog regularly, but not this blog - Rational Parenting - regularly? I guess there must be some (and definitely vice versa of course). To those few I say, do make a point of reading this latest posting today, about the value both to parents and to children of parents having a network of friends. Quote:

… nobody needs support networks more than parents do.

So far so relatively obvious. But this is where it gets really good, I think.

But I wonder how many people think of the advantages to the children, of having extra adult friends around? Whether or not those adults want to be "babysitters", interaction between them and children can be beneficial on both sides, and lead to very satisfying and mutually educational friendships, with none of the baggage of the conventional parenting role. And it seems likely that children who get a chance to observe adult interaction, and listen in on adult conversation, and have their questions answered when they are interested enough to ask, are learning something very valuable indeed.

If you tell people ideas verbally, they can pick them up rationally. If you demonstrate ideas in action, a whole lot of inexplicit extra material is added to the theory. This is what I think is conveyed by the expression, "Actions speak louder than words". So, better than just helping your child have all the friends he wants and solve the problems he finds with them in good ways, is also helping yourself to do the same and making sure your child knows about it and sees it in reality. There are things we can learn from watching people interact that we can't easily learn any other way.

As I say, really good stuff. Although me now being part of Alice's own network of friends, I am very biased.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:16 PM
Category: Parents and children
[0] [0]
Children not involved

BEdBlog readers may be interested to know that a large slice of the speech I heard the other night by Damian Green is now up and readable at education.guardian.co.uk. As some of us have already explained, the Adam Smith intro was a bit sneaky, but the guts of Green's talk was not half bad, by which I mean half good. And since the good half is what he is saying should now be done, that's good enough for me, given that this man is a front bench politician.

Sample quote:

But this process of centralisation has now gone much too far. The tide of centralisation in education policy which Jim Callaghan set off in 1976 is doing more harm than good. We need to spend the coming decades setting schools free, and giving more choice to everyone involved in education, from teachers to parents. This is certainly the central thread of Conservative policy-making. The key is to ensure that these new freedoms do not lead to another lapse in basic standards, and to do that we need a combination of simple but effective outside monitoring, and genuine parental choice.

But, spot the undeliberate horror. That's right: "… everyone involved in education, from teachers to parents." I remember gasping internally at that last Tuesday. What, the children aren't "involved" then?

The truth is that for the great bulk of the people at whom Green is aiming his rhetoric, the children are indeed not involved. They are to remain the object of a process, not people in their own right who are to have any influence over the process being done to them. The complaint of middle England is not that there is anything fundamentally wrong with process all these children-as-objects, merely that the processing should be done more efficiently. The freedom of mere children is a problem to be got around, rather than any sort of animating principle. Schools must make our kiddies stop wanting to be pop stars and footballers and should turn them instead into doctors and dentists and merchant bankers or, if all else fails, computer geeks. If they're too thick for any of that, at least keep them out of jail and stop them having babies too early and going off to live in caravans or squats or under bridges. That's the attitude. And I don't completely disagree by any means. I just think things could be so much better than that.

In Brianschool, the idea will be that what the children want to do, so long as it isn't criminally nasty, will be the starting-out axiom. Footballer? Fine. Pop star? Great, go to it. Which is why the thing will get very few customers to start with, or probably ever.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:45 PM
Category: Free market reforms
[0] [0]
January 30, 2003
Freedom of expression in British universities threatened

Just had an email from Junius:

I've just blogged about a matter that I think has potentially serious implications for freedom of expression in British universities.

Thank you Junius. His posting starts thus:

A report into Mona Baker's decision to sack Israelis from the editorial boards of journals she edits has recommended that British universities should take on extensive powers to regulate the external activities of their staff. As regular readers know, I thought Mona Baker's actions were wrong, repellent and stupid, but this rings alarm bells ...

I won't quote further. Go there to read more.

However, a more general point about BEdBlog. I am especially interested in focussing on British stories, and, more generally, and no disrespect to that fine country intended, non-USA stories. (You will note that my first Official Guest Writer – and isn't he doing well? – is a fellow Brit.) This is not me dissing the USA, merely a belief in the value of the division of labour. If I wanted to, I could keep this blog plenty full enough by doing nothing but piggy-back stories from the USA. Often I can't resist joining in on a USA story, and I'm certainly not saying that I'll never do that. But a better service to the blogosphere in general, and to the USA's edu-blogger's (and to their readers, linked to here), is to bring British stories to their attention, or, as in this case, help to do that by adding my voice to a hubbub someone else is busy creating. Presumably I wasn't the only person Junius emailed. If I was, all the more reason to respond here.

Besides which, Britain is where I live. I like the place. It's where I am being educated, and am educating from. Nothing wrong with being patriotic about your own little corner of the world. As I often say about another blog I also occasionally write for, Transport Blog: see the world in a grain of sand …

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:49 PM
Category: This Blog
[0] [0]
January 29, 2003
Andrew Wood - Adam Smith - David Friedman

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

Dear Brian,

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

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

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

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

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

Best wishes,


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

Here's DF's first paragraph:

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

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:17 PM
Category: Politics
[2] [0]
January 28, 2003
Adam Smith Lecture – "Setting Schools Free"

I've just got back from attending a lecture entitled "Setting Schools Free" organised by the Adam Smith Institute and given by Damian Green, the Shadow Education Secretary, i.e. the Conservative opposition chief complainer about education. It was given within walking distance of where I live and was just about worth the walk, if only to give me something to write about here.

Green said that there is too much state central control of Britain's state schools. The government should stay in the business of funding education, but should reduce its central control, and instead allow parental control to increase and school managerial autonomy to increase with it. Instead of schools being disciplined by a stream of central diktats from the Department of Education they should be disciplined by the fear of competition from other schools which parents might prefer.

The essential change Green proposed is that consortia of teachers, financiers, whoever, should be allowed to set up new schools and compete with the existing ones. The money would follow the choices made by the parents. Education vouchers without the name "education vouchers" attached to it all, in other words.

The government would still be deciding what a school is, and under mild cross-examination from the floor it turned out that Green's understanding of that is probably very different from what the readers of this would like it to be. Hundreds of children all being polite and studious, as in a "good" school now. A bit of hippy-ness would have to be tolerated here and there for the sake of school autonomy. A primary school would need to have a minimum of about fifty children at it. See Holland for the sort of rules he favours.

Damian Green is a new name to me. Based on a few minutes googling during which I encountered the initials "TRG" (which stand for "Tory Reform Group"), it would appear that he is a member of the "wet" wing, the "one nation" wing of the Conservative Party, and accordingly I probably have Conservative acquaintances who regard this man as the spawn of Satan, for being insufficiently rabid in his support for the free market. For being, that is to say, not as rabid in his support for the free market as, to name someone totally at random, me. And indeed I favour an educational world far different from the one that he wants to set about contriving. Professor Dennis O'Keeffe made a little speech from the floor favouring a much more free market approach, from which Green of course deftly distanced himself.

But I can't get very worked up about this fact. It was often the case during the Thatcher years that "wet" cabinet ministers were better at moving towards a free market in whatever it was they were dealing with than were their more overtly ideological and "Thatcherite" rivals, not least because a self-proclaimed Thatcherite ideologist alerted the opposition to the threat being posed, whereas a wet could just get on with things more quietly, while emitting bromidic (is that a word? – it is now) speeches such as the one I've just been listening to. In practice, one step in the right direction is the most that you can ever hope for from these people, and whatever future steps they once dreamed of taking when they were starting their climb up the greasy pole really don't matter that much.

At the beginning of his lecture, Green quoted Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations in support of his support for the principle of state-funded education, and revealed a gaping hole in this alleged support which I didn't previously know about. But I'll deal with that another time.

Not a word was breathed about home education, home schooling, or any such radicalism, which I also cannot find it in me to regret. Ask a man like Green about all that and you never know what might come out of his mouth, and once he's said it, he might then want to tbe consistent.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:33 PM
Category: Free market reforms
[0] [0]
January 27, 2003
The meaning of "independent school"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julius Blumfeld

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:53 PM
Category: Politics
[1] [0]