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Chronological Archive • March 02, 2003 - March 08, 2003
March 08, 2003
"Blazered Sloanes and Alice-banded bimbettes"

Here's some scorching prose from Robbie Millen on the Bristol University entrance row, from last Thursday's Times that I've only just noticed. (Paper version, links don't work, blah blah.) This is a story that seems to appeal to lots of people, definitely including me. Anyway here's about the first half of it:

There is no one more impossible to reason with than a stupid person who is ignorant of his stupidity. Correction: there is no one more impossible to reason with thatn a stupid person who is ignorant of his stupidity because it has been disguised by forceful teaching.

Bristol University abounds with such people, the slow-witted but straight-A products of private schools. So does Edinburgh, Newcastle or any university that has been glitter-dusted with social cachet. These people may be good on the rugger fields or useful on the May Ball committee, but in academic terms they are a waste of space. A stupid person, who has been well-taught in the science of passing exams, is inoculated against thinking, immune from picking up new ideas, and a bore for tutors. They add nothing to the life of the mind; the purpose, lest we forget, of university.

They are currently very angry that Bristol wants fewer of them. But the university should not be afraid that the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, the bastion of creamy-voiced whining, has declared a boycott, crying foul over alleged discrimination. Rather, Bristol should be glad to shake off its dated image as a drinking den for blazered Sloanes and Alice-banded bimbettes.

Let Bristol go farther to find bright children from state schools, pupils who have been boycotting the place for years, put off by its reputation. A pox on quotas and top-down silliness about targets but any fool must recognise that a B from a bog-standard is worth an A* from St Cake's; and any tutor would rather teach a student with untapped potential than some dried-up husk from a hothouse school.

That's telling 'em. There are several more paragraphs of class warfare to follow, and the good bit is that, lefty though Mr Millen is, he still interrupts the flow of his invective long enough to pour scorn on on centrally imposed quotas. Let the universities decide for themselves. He's just giving them the benefit of his advice. Great stuff.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:38 AM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
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March 07, 2003

This story, on the other hand, unlike the one linked to just below this, is deadly serious:

A teacher has been jailed for three months for tampering with test papers at two primary schools.

Alan Mercer, the former head teacher at South Borough Primary School in Maidstone, Kent, was sentenced at Maidstone Crown Court on Friday.

He pleaded guilty in January to 10 offences of forging Key Stage 2 assessments at South Borough in 2002.

The 46-year-old also admitted two charges of forging Key Stage 2 tests at Eythorne Elvington School in Dover and two charges of forging PESE Grammar School entrance exams at South Borough in 2002.

Mercer, of Prospect Row, Gillingham, Kent, had also asked for a further 140 offences of forging test papers to be taken into account.

Judge Keith Simpson said the case was "so serious" that an immediate custodial sentence was required.

He said: "If others were to act in this fashion the whole system would be immediately and utterly destroyed, and that cannot be allowed to happen.

This has got to be the most significant "sovietisation of education" story yet, or at any rate since I started this blog. This wretched man is like some Soviet factory manager who just went that bit too far in lying about his quota fulfilment.

For me, the key paragraph in the above report is the one about "if" others were to do the same. For of course they are pretty much bound to be others behaving similarly, only cleverly enough not to get caught. The right way to rig the system is by putting the effort into the priming of the kids, so to speak, just before the exam, surely.

There is an ever more inviting business opportunity here, in the form of a totally private enterprise, totally non-corruptible exam system, whose bosses are willing to be patient about building their reputation, and to subject any politician or teacher who tries to pressurise them to savage public denunciation (after maybe a couple of private warnings first).

The key to the success of the operation would be not to kiss the arses of the ed-pols and the ed-bureaucrats. For never forget that these people are now the biggest exam cheats, not the teachers, and not (as in the old days) the pupils. For it would not matter if the official pols and bureaucrats hated their entrails, following some row during which said pols and bureaucrats had received a public roasting from our heroes for having tried to get them to ease their standards a bit to make them look like less of a failure. Such rows would help, if handled right. The parents, the best schools, and the pupils themselves, would all, if the entrepreneurs in question were willing to be patient and to tough it out with their "official" competitor/enemies, eventually flock to such an alternative exam system. Why? Because it could become the one that schools, universities, and employers regarded as the best.

As the official, ever more politicised exam system degenerates into an ever more chaotic and uninformative mess, which makes comparisons between individual pupils, and between pupils from different years, ever more impossible and confusing, the opportunity for something unofficial gets ever more clear.

Meanwhile, I see that this wretched Head Teacher (and 3 months in jail is only the beginning of his miseries) is from Kent, like my friend the Assistant Head Teacher. So maybe I'll be able to pick up some further inside gossip about this case over the weekend.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:38 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
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The swearing son

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

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

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:44 PM
Category: Parents and childrenPolitics
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A weekend research trip

Tomorrow I'm off to visit some friends, who now have a young son. Plus, if I remember it right, he is an Assistant Head Teacher. That ought to be interesting on both counts.

And this expedition, to the outer wilds of Kent, is not just to see the family. There's going to be a party. Maybe there'll be other teachers present whom I can also interrogate. Stay tuned.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:30 PM
Category: This Blog
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March 06, 2003
What is authority?

This piece in telegraph.co.uk by Jonty Driver is interesting. What does authority consist of? Why do some have it and others not?

While some have that personal authority almost as a birthright, others need to learn it. Most inexperienced teachers seem fair game to even well-behaved pupils. It takes confidence to trust the authority of one's position, even in a disciplined institution with clear boundaries.

A defining moment in my career came when I was a young housemaster. In my house was a clever and popular boy, captain of rugby and very much a hero in the school. He was doing no academic work at all, and every effort I made to cajole and - in due course - to force him to work foundered on his charming insouciance. His lazy influence was beginning to affect others in the house, so I asked the headmaster for help. "Tell him to see me," said the head.

Eventually, I took the boy to the headmaster - who happened to be weeding his garden at the time. The boy walked over to the head, who didn't stop weeding. The headmaster spoke - no more than a sentence. The boy stood for a moment, then turned away.

That evening, I found him at his desk, working. By the end of the year, he had a place at Oxford.

"What on earth did you say to him?" I asked the head when the reformation had taken effect. "Oh," said the head, cheerfully, "I told him to stop being such a bloody fool, and to get down to some work. That's all.''

And I do think that was all: it was the head's sheer natural authority - or call it personality, if you will - that did the trick. It made me realise that I had been trying too hard: what was required wasn't reason, or logic, or the apparatus of discipline (detentions, extra lessons, gatings), but just some straightforward authority.

One answer, of the sort you might expect here, is that this kind of "authority" is something that one should not attempt to exercise. And indeed, having been to one of these places myself, I can tell you that this is not the kind of school I would ever want to teach at. Very few of the pupils have much say either in whether they are there in the first place, or, once there, what they do from one hour to the next. The system ordains, and they obey, until they are old enough to be allowed to decide things for themselves, at which point many of them have had this trick beaten out of them so thoroughly that they have to spend the next five years learning it.

I know what I'm talking about with this syndrome. I used to be one of these posh but dim school leavers, and I'm now an occasional, amateur (but quite effective) career counsellor. Time and again this is the central agenda that I and my customer now find ourselves addressing. Well brought up English people are all too liable simply never to have mastered the trick of running their own lives and making their own big life decisions. Instead of truly deciding for themselves, they just do the obvious next thing supplied by the world around them. Which is okay, until it goes wrong and they find that they have to really think about what they would really like to do (because suddenly it is a struggle and only certain struggles are worth the struggle), and they realise they don't know how to think for themselves. Years of being subjected to the sort of "authority" described by the likes of Jonty Driver and his Headmaster can do that to you. Still, they mostly know how to think for other people, that is to say they know how to think, so the situation is usually quite easily corrected.

So far so libertarian. But, my libertarian duty done, I still find that the idea of "authority" means something. After all, even if everyone present at an event has chosen to be present and is not being coerced to remain, there are still some events which are bossed authoritatively, and which are thus pleasing and relaxing to be at and thus attract repeat business, and other events which are bossed badly, and hence which are stressful to attend, and those events fail or fizzle out. So, what is "authority"? How do you do "authority"?

Although the aptly named Mr Driver tells us that authority can be learned, he has no space in his short newspaper piece to tell us how, or to go into very much detail about what exactly authority consists of, other than noting that his headmaster just, you know, had it.

The mysteriously all powerful headmaster whose lightest word is immutable law is a stock figure of school fiction, and that's because this isn't only fiction. Headmasters are often just like that for real.

Why? How do they do it? Can authority be learned? Can authority, that is to say, be broken down into a decent number of understandable procedures that go beyond repeating the question by rephrasing it as "common sense" or some such vacuity?

I'm certain that authority can be learned. I write as one of those people very common in the political world who was not born with any natural authority to speak of, and who was when young mostly bossed about by his bigger and bossier contemporaries, but who nevertheless wanted to have authority, and who has gradually learned how to do authority as the years have gone by and as the experiences have piled up.

And oh dear I'm starting to run out of time. I just had a date, which sounds a lot more exciting than it was, but it took up most of the evening. So I'll call it a day for today, and start in on actually answering the question I started with Real Soon Now, and hopefully tomorrow. I don't want to rush it. Apologies if I got your hopes up for an instant answer. Please be patient.

But, I do have time to tell you this, although it's a change of subject. Education Minister Charles Clarke is on Question Time just now, and it seems he went to a posh school, not the ghastly lower class educational sewer I was hinting at in my previous posting. His grizzly grey beard, his sticking out ears and his bulky figure make him look like a night club bouncer. But now I've heard him talking, and heard one of the others talking about the fact that Charles Clarke went to a posh school, which pretty much settles it. Think eccentric barrister. That's more the kind of person he is. Apologies for that also.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:48 PM
Category: Brian's educationThis and that
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March 05, 2003
More thoughts on the Bristol University entrance row

I have often alluded here to my indifference or downright hostility towards national education stories compared to flesh and blood stories concerning actual, individual people. This goes way beyond logic, for national statistics are not always lies, and often reveal big events even if not with the accuracy they suggest. But my attitude towards national education statistics is, basically, that I'm against them. The government knowing the national picture concerning the state of this or that variable is inextricably intertwined with the government seeking to control that aspect of the picture.

The ongoing ruckus concerning the admissions policies of the various faculties of Bristol University is all mixed up with a national government effort first to count, and then to increase, the number of non-posh people going to university.

Margaret Hodge, the Higher Education Minister, has already told universities that they will be set new targets for increasing recruitment of teenagers from low-income homes and where neither parent went to university. They will also have to give special consideration to applicants from schools with a history of poor results. But she was forced by Mr Clarke into an embarrassing climb-down on Monday from a plan to set a specific target for increasing the proportion of working-class students at university by 2010.

That's from the front page (top right) of today's Times, paper version, which is to say that it's a big row. Posh schools are threatening to steer their best pupils away from Bristol, and are generally getting on their high horses and blowing their trumpets, which of course they are perfectly entitled to do.

The Mr Clarke in the quote above is the Minister of Education, and I get the impression that he isn't nearly as posh in his background as Margaret Hodge is. If that's right, then it's the posh one who wants anti-posh quotas, while the non-posh one isn't so bothered. That often the way. The people at the top of the ladder turn around and meddle with it. People half way up just want the thing to stay still.

I've already explained here why I think that Bristol University has a point in pursuing somewhat anti-posh entrance policies. I have also explained that I am opposed to the government imposing any policy from the centre, however sensible it might seem, pro-posh, anti-posh or of any other kind. What started out as a scheme to avoid neglecting bright kids from bad schools who would, if given a chance, do very well at university, is all too likely, if administered from the centre, to degenerate into a scheme that fills universities with proletarian dullards and excludes the brightest and best of all classes. So it's a good thing that Margaret Hodge is getting a roasting, and that when the dust has settled, the universities will probably continue to go their own ways. That is as it should be.

Bristol University is extremely untypical of Britain's universities in general in that they have publicly stated that they are skewing their system in favour of lower class students of high promise, and against those they see as the pampered posh. I don't know if this is what I would do if I were running a university, but that's not the point. The point is that each university should be allowed to pick its own students, and to be as public as it likes in saying how it does this.

But what if actually the Margaret Hodges of this world (by which I mean Britain) are actually winning this argument? What if Bristol is but the public tip of a vast private iceberg of anti-posh animus, with universities everywhere all refusing to accept the bright posh ones, while calmly denying in public that they are doing any such thing?

If the British government does make this policy stick, it would be interesting to speculate what the consequences for the country might be.

The assumption behind most discussions of this kind is that Britain's universities are places of unalterable and unchallengeable excellence, and the only question is who shall be permitted to bask in their glow. But what if our universities are driven into a state of collective decline by policies such as this, and by many other equally dictatorial arrangements concerning other matters, such as there being enough lady professors and students, and enough ethnic professors and students, and so on? What if a job at a university or a university degree becomes an indelible mark of mediocrity? What if our brightest and best were to start going straight from their teens into Real Life? At present these people spend about five more years being trained to be academics. In Real Life this means being trained as a paper shuffler, otherwise known as a bureaucrat.

I suspect that what would be considered very bad for the universities could turn out extraordinarily well for the country.

Proposed theory for discussion. When Britain's universities have been regarded as doing well, Britain has declined. When Britain's universities have been a corrupt and philistine shambles, Britain has raced ahead. Discuss.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:55 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications
[0] [0]
March 04, 2003
There's more to training than training

In a comment on this posting here last month, a distinction was made between "education" and "training", by Kamen Rider. But I wonder how genuine this distinction is. How much do these two words describe truly different activities, and how much do they merely describe different aspects of the same process? For even as one is being "trained" to do something or other, one also has a mind that is working away, learning more elusive and subtle lessons than the mere behavioural patterns one is also acquiring.

At the end of last week I was preoccupied with DIY. More CD shelves to be exact. And this reminded me of an educational- stroke-training episode deep in my past.

I went to one of those posh preparatory schools in the home counties of southern England, and one term, for some reason, a bus load of us were sent off to have weekly woodwork classes, under the supervision of a type of person we seldom encountered in the normal course of our lives. He was an aristocrat of labour, a classic NCO type. Under his watchful eye we learned sawing, and dovetailing, and glueing, and we all ended up with small wooden pencil boxes. I think I still have mine somewhere.

The same experience affects different pupils in very different ways, so I can't speak for the others. But I learned a lot from this man, who I thought then and still think was most impressive. I learned some carpentry techniques of the sort I still use, when erecting CD shelves for example. I got some training, in other words. But I also learned an attitude towards doing work which I had never come across before.

This man was obsessed with getting things right and doing things right. For him, technical correctness was a moral issue. People who put saw cuts through the middle of the line, instead of next to a line and on the correct side of the line in the way one should, were not just incompetent. They were wicked.

So, I was learning both some good carpentry habits, and I was imbibing something more like a whole attitude to life, and learning about a sort of person whom I had until then imagined not to exist, or to be motivated only by the most shallow and small-minded of motives. That a man could combine proletarian speaking habits and technical rather than "educated" interests with the moral passion of an Old Testament prophet was all new stuff to me, and it might still startle me a little if I came across it now. Training and education.

And what about those Kumon kids, who's mere "training" Kamen Rider was commenting on? Well, for some of the children I watched doing Kumon maths, there was a great deal more involved than merely picking up a few maths skills.

I recall a rather quiet, rather arkward boy, tending towards plumpness, by the name of Graham. Graham showed up at our Kumon classes, and did the sums as requested. He had very little to say for himself, but that didn't bother us. Talking is not part of the Kumon deal.

Only later did we discover that Graham's whole life had apparently been transformed for the better. His parents were much more stylish and articulate people than their son, quicker of mind and tongue than him, and, frankly, they were rather embarrassed by very ordinary-seeming child. What was wrong with him? How had they, such sparkling persons, had such uninspiring offspring? And of course this only made Graham all the more depressed and arkward. That seemed to be the picture.

And then Graham started doing Kumon, and turning in those near perfect scores that all Kumon kids get because if they don't get near perfect scores they are doing the wrong sums. Finally, Graham realised that he was not this incompetent waste of space that his parents were so carefully not saying that they thought he was. His whole attitude towards life was transformed. He became more confident, more outgoing. He stopped apologising for being alive, and started to really live.

Graham's story is not at all an uncommon in Kumon. The way that children are "trained" to do maths (and a great many other things) in regular schools can do awful things to their confidence, in ways that affect a great deal more than their mere exam results. And correspondingly, good maths training of the sort that Kumon supplies can do a lot more than get a kid through some exams.

I wonder if "training" is ever only training.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:08 PM
Category: Brian's education
[1] [0]
March 03, 2003
A gr8 story on Samizdata about text messaging versus regular English

There a fascinating posting by Gabriel Syme over at Samizdata.net, about the culture clash between text messaging and regular reading and writing as demanded by schools, in this case Scottish schools. Gabriel got up earlier this morning than I did, and even then I might have missed it, because few national education stories are as gr8 as this one, "gr8" being the only word I know in this new language so far. There are links to telegraph.co.uk stories (e.g. to this) today, and to pieces I have written on Samizdata way back, and to here, and the least I can do is do is connect the half dozen folk in the unverse to this delightful ruckus who read this but not Samizdata.

Because: need I add how delighted I am about this story? And it's not just that I'm a Vodafone shareholder, god help me. The essence of good writing is knowing who you are sending your message to, and what you are trying to get across with it. By this standard the average text message is excellent, and the average school essay is a pointless shambles of undirected waffle.

I certainly don't think that regular English spelling is a CWOT ("complete waste of time"), but I cannot believe that the education of children is necessarily harmed by this new craze. I suppose anything which might drive a moderately good teacher insane will probably do some harm. But once teachers have got used to this stuff, and once a few text messagers have attained managerial status in the economy, isn't fluency in text messaging something extra to put on one's CV?

Meanwhile, the English language will, as so often, hoover up a mass of new words from this latest patois, and become even more English than it is already ("cwot" perhaps?), that is to say, even more complicated and mysterious and weirdly spelt, even more completely the language of the entire world, and way more cool even than it is already. In short, western civilisation will race ahead, accompanied, as always, by proclamations from oldies to the effect that it is doing the exact opposite.

What's tXt for "discuss"? Although, please note that if you do want to discuss this, the logical place to put comments is on Samizdata rather than here, because that is where most of them will be anyway. My guess is they'll be a lot of fun. I wonder if any regular old-school school teachers will try to stem the tide of gleeful postings in the new lingo with serious explanations of why it all ought to be stamped out, along with all other forms of modern communication, like TV, computers, pop music, chains of bonfires, etc.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:02 PM
Category: Technology
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