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Chronological Archive • March 09, 2003 - March 15, 2003
March 14, 2003
Girls will be girls and boys will be men

One other Big Issue that I've not mentioned so far this week, which cropped up in my conversations last weekend with my Kent teacher friend, is the matter of gender segregation.

My friend works in a huge boys-only school with nearly two thousand pupils. Discipline-wise and learning-wise it is all over the place, the way he told it. Not wise at all, in other words. But, just across the road is an all-girl school, nearly as big, where things run much more smoothly.

The consensus to the effect that this is exactly what we should expect is one that I've already referred to here. That girls tend to do best in an all-girl school, while boys do worst in an all-boy school, was strongly confirmed by my friend, both from his direct experience, and from the general teacher-gossip he's picked up over the years.

Here is the same fact cluster being referred to by Joan Bakewell, in some comments by her about the St Hilda's College Oxford row. St Hilda's have narrowly voted, again, not to allow men in, and JB is pleased, but fears that the decision may eventually be reversed.

But of course if this prejudice is right that girls need all-girl schools while boys need not-all-boy schools, then something has to give. A commenter on my earlier posting pointed out that "the market would solve it", in the sense that some people care about these things more than others, and the market would enable the necessary trade-offs and compromises to be made. But that is still a compromise.

So here's a possible answer that is not a compromise. Leave the girls in their all-girl schools, unless they are desperate to be one of the boys. But, abandon the idea of educating the great mass of boys in similar places to the girls, or to the places we try to educate them in now. Instead, put them in the company of men. Let them go to work.

What if, in other words, the trouble with all-boy schools is not just that they are all-boy in the sense of lacking girls, but in the sense of lacking human beings of any other kind whatever? – except for a few wretched "teachers", who scarcely count as humans at all, so outnumbered and overwhelmed are they.

If we allowed the boys out to work, they would be much more intensely taught, by a much greater number of men giving them a total of far more adult male attention than they get now from their "teachers".

Actual juvenile work, of the sort that the rest of us actually want to have done, not just trudging through GCSEs, also pulls the economics of this into shape, and pays for the massively increased adult-to-boy ratio that is needed to solve this problem.

Work will also give the boys some money, and more fundamentally some status in the world, such as they can now only carve out for themselves with criminality. Patient and studious boys now survive the long wait for adulthood. Most boys can't manage it without grief to all concerned.

We shouldn't abandon the idea of old fashioned education for boys – with the whole paraphernalia of desks and books and lecturers. But we should feed this into their adolescences gradually, not in an all-or-nothing great glob of academicness which they either stick with all round the clock or are chucked out of for ever.

The typical fourteen year old sould be spending most of his working day on the lower reaches of the adult male pecking order, learning to run a factory, learning to mind the shop or man the phones or guard the territory, making tea for senior bureaucrats and sitting in on the big male arguments in the canteen. He wouldn't be out tormenting the hell out of school geeks or getting the sillier girls into trouble or driving the police crazy, or not as much as he does now. He'd be learning some manners, from people he'd be willing to listen to. And learning a lot else besides.

Then, when our later-teenage box-shifters and till-minders and tea-makers get a bit older and can see the point of it, welcome them back into the academies, if they want to come back or if they haven't by now joined an academy in the real world, like a company training scheme.

Forcing young male noses into books when they want to be flexing their muscles and minds outside is a waste of everyone's time. Chucking them out of their schools at exactly the moment when, if nature had been allowed more naturally to take its course, they might have got interested in such stuff, is a further huge cruelty, a life destroyer.

Reversing this idiotic procedure would give the boys a chance to sample adult life before making irrevocable decisions about it. They could shift boxes, and see the world, and talk the world through with the older guys, and then later, make some intelligent educational moves.

My Kent school teacher friend added another crucial item of evidence. He reported that the Daily Mail and its readers are also right about the vital importance of a father. The correlation, he says between boys who's parents don't attend in a respectable male-female duet on parents' day but who only have a mother show up, or nothing at all, is so huge as to be unignorable. Boys with mums and dads behave during their early teens, during The Wait. Boys with only mums are the ones who are out of control. The present government policy is to fine our lone mum if her son misbehaves. Well, that might work, if the son truly loves his mother enough not to want to get her into trouble. But what if it doesn't work?

The real answer is to lower the legal school leaving age and legal working age, for boys (but for girls too if that's what it takes), to thirteen. (While we're at it, I'd give them all the vote.) The next best thing to a real dad is not a succession of "uncles", or the intrusive power of the state; it is male authority outside the failing home.

I am of course thinking aloud here. But that's all part of what I started this blog to do.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:07 PM
Category: Boys will be boys
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March 13, 2003
Feedback from Sean Gabb – this blog is starting to change the world!

Here's a first. Brian's Education Blog has had its first detectable influence on Education in Real Life. It wasn't a very big bit of influence, but it was influence. Here's the story.

You may recall that I did a piece about my friend Sean Gabb teaching economics to a group of mostly Asian, mostly female students.

One of things I mentioned in that piece was a culture clash that I thought I detected between the Anglo-Saxon argue-your-corner tradition and the Asian defer-to-your-teacher tradition. Sean, being the Anglo that he is, wanted his students to argue with each other, and with him. I surmised that a teacher telling his Asian pupils to disagree creates a classic dilemma in their minds. He is ordering something, and because he is the teacher he must be obeyed, but what he is ordering is disagreement. Ouch!

Sean rang me to day to tell me that he had just instructed a class, containing several of the pupils I had watched him teaching, to debate some issue amongst themselves and come to a collective point of view, which they would then present to him. The pupils said they felt uncomfortable arguing in Sean's presence. The idea was that they should feel free to dispute some of the things Sean himself had said, but they didn't feel able to do this in a relaxed manner. So, they asked Sean to kindly leave while they had their discussion. And get this. They quoted my report. That's right, they used what I had written to explain the legitimacy of what they felt about this problem.

Sean had no problem with this, so he left, and while he was outside, relaxing, cooling his heels, having a fag, etc., he rang me on his mobile to tell me this. For which I am very grateful to him.

Okay, this is not the abolition of compulsory education, but it is a start. I have helped a group of pupils and their teacher to understand just that tiny little bit better than otherwise what they were doing together, and have helped them communicate with one another when solving one of the resulting problems. This pleases me.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:45 PM
Category: Higher education
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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
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Bring on the Afghans!

Here's another little snippet from my conversations last weekend. My Kent teacher friend told me that the attitude of your average teacher towards immigrants and asylum seakers is: bring 'em on. He has some Afghans in his class, and they are by far the most studious of his students. He recalled a day when one of them stayed behind after a lesson had finished, to finish some work. The locals would never do such a thing. The Afghans, he reports, are decidedly critical of the locals for their educational indolence.

What's going on here? Partly, it is surely that immigrants and asylum seakers are often thoroughly superior people compared to your local yobbos, educationally speaking. We're talking doctors and lawyers and clerics, who are merely disguised temporarily as cabbies for the first generation of their time in England, but who will soon be reverting to type and sending their kids to posh schools where they'll feel more at home.

But I think something else is involved here. The Third World is now famously more enthusiastic about education, and is now famously more willing to pay the price for it, whether that's a cash price or a discipline price, than is the First World. Why? Well, how about that in the Third World the penalties for doing nothing very much with your life are so much more severe than they are in the First World, and immigrants from the Third to the First World bring the educational attitude that is caused by this economic fact with them. And how about that the economic benefits of education in the Third World are greater than they are here. As a result, the Prussian System of education, as I've been calling it here, still works well in the Third World, whereas it is increasingly obsolete here.

In a couple of generations, there could be a summersault. The Prussian System could by then have collapsed here, and been replaced by something a lot more voluntaristic and a lot better. Meanwhile, the Prussian System could be just entering its decadent phase in the Third World, while still being at the stage of the Third World equivalents of Daily Mail readers confining themselves (as here now) to saying that the only answer to the problems of the Prussian System is to make it more Prussian, by, I don't know, recruiting new teachers from Prussia, by imposing Prussian Drill classes on bad pupils, etc.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:20 PM
Category: History
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Higher education is already nationalised

A different slant on the Bristol University ruckus from regular guest contributor Julius Blumfeld:

Following on from the Bristol University admissions debacle, Brian has written in favour of British Universities being free to decide who to admit. I’m not so sure.

Of course in the private sector, educational institutions ought to be free to teach what they want and to whom. If one University chooses to admit only poor bright students while another chooses to admit only rich thick ones, that’s fine by me.

But almost all British Universities are largely publicly funded and have been since even before the 1963 Robbins Report. For all practical purposes, they are State industries.

And like all State industries, decisions as to what they should produce and how they should produce it are necessarily political. It makes no more sense to say that British Universities should have the freedom to decide their own admissions policies than to say that the Army should have the freedom to decide who to fight or that the Health Service should have the freedom to decide which diseases to treat. Of course the bureaucrats in those industries will have a say in those sorts of decisions. So will the technicians. There may be room for a bit more autonomy here and there. But ultimately as long as the State is in charge, it will and must make the ultimate decisions. It’s one of the things that States do.

Indeed higher education is just an example of a wider problem with State-owned property. It is impossible to reach agreement on how State-owned property is best used because there is no agreed measure as to what counts as best use. I may think that Universities should be used for social engineering. You may think they should be used to churn out engineers. Brian may think they should be used to teach art and culture to the masses. Who is right? I don’t know and indeed there is no means of knowing. So we end up with such decisions being made by politicians (and, increasingly, I anticipate, by judges).

The fact is that as long as Universities remain in the State sector, it is inevitable that the State will make the decisions about what is taught and to whom. And it is equally inevitable that there will be hand wringing from those who don’t like the decisions that are being made. It could not be otherwise. It is only when the Universities finally wean themselves off their decades-long addiction to public funding and become private again (a process which this latest debacle will hopefully hasten), that they will become free to decide what to teach and to whom, and the whole debate will go away.

Julius Blumfeld

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:05 PM
Category: Examinations and qualificationsHigher education
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March 11, 2003
Eastern European non-saviours

Following on directly from the posting immediately below, about the low quality of the people now trying to enter Britain's teaching profession, I expect the following two things (among all kinds of other things) to happen to British teacher recruitment over the next few years.

First, thanks to European Union labour mobility laws (which Britain, unlike many EU countries, takes seriously), I expect a flood of Eastern Europeans to flood (since that's what floods do) into British teaching.

But, second, I expect most of these Eastern Europeans to recoil in horror from their new jobs, and to end up doing only as much British teaching as they have to do, until they can find other jobs that are less stressful, like working as drug dealers or table dancers – or perhaps as actual, officially recognised Prison Officers, in jobs where it is clearly understood by all concerned that prisons are indeed prisons, and you can't expect to run them like holiday camps. The lucky few will get jobs in the British educational private sector.

The idea that the British teaching profession can be made wonderful simply by attracting wonderful people into it is false. It doesn't matter how wonderful a person is if what he has to do is impossible. It is not possible to imprison the proletarians of Britain without the use either of physical force or the threat of expulsion, and without any disruption to the minority of pupils who would quite like to make use of their prison time to do some learning. This simply cannot be done, no matter how wonderful you are.

It doesn't matter how successfully you may previously have taught in another school system, where you had the means to do your job to hand. In Britain, you won't be able to do what the government wants of you, because no one could.

You can be a combination of Maria Montessori, Plato, Carol Vorderman and the leader of the England rugby scrum. You still won't make this system work, because no one could.

Faced with this impasse, the government only makes matters worse by piling in with yet more demands and restrictions and bureaucratic oversights, as if the government threatening reality with the big stick of the law can somehow alter reality. They thus make a job which is already impossible, even more impossible.

But none of this will stop the politicians from persisting in the delusion that "better people" will somehow solve the problem. Thus the Eastern Europeans. For a few short years, they'll be presented to us as the saviours of British education.

Very few indeed of these Eastern Europeans will make a long term success of teaching in British schools. But that won't stop them being used as temporary political wallpaper for a few years, to wallpaper (since that's what wallpaper does) over the cracks in the system. But they will be revealed as no more capable of making the British state education system work than Brit teachers are.

The only good thing that will come out of this episode will be that it will show that the existing mess wasn't the fault of the average failing Brit teacher.

If the average failing Brit teacher had got a job in Eastern Europe, he or she might have done it quite well. Which is why many Brit teachers will actually migrate to Eastern Europe, to teach English to people who want to learn it.

There is another way to make use of Eastern Europe for British educational purposes, but I'll save that for a later posting.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:48 PM
Category: The reality of teaching
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Things Are Getting Worse

So, what else did my Kent schoolteacher friend have to say?

Well, he did say that getting good people to become teachers in state schools is becoming harder. He did not, however, go quite this far:

Recruiting teachers can be costly, time-consuming and ultimately unsuccessful, according to a new report from the recruitment industry.

Select Education's annual True Time and Cost of Teacher Recruitment Survey revealed that recruiting a teacher costs a school an estimated £4,000. It showed that 60% of schools surveyed had unfilled permanent vacancies and the standard of applicants had dropped.

During 2002, 30% of schools surveyed recruited four or more new members of staff, with 9% (mostly in secondary schools) appointing 11 or more new teachers.

Many headteachers said they were struggling to fill the posts they were advertising, and 40% said they had fewer applications for each post advertised in 2002, compared with 2001. About 5% reported having received no applications for an advertised post.

More than a quarter - 28% - said the applications received were worse than the year before. Headteachers complained of spelling mistakes, poor presentation, "odd pen ink/colours used", and letters that were "pompous", "rambling" or "vague".

When it came to an interview, applicants were still not up to scratch. Interviewees, according to headteachers, showed a lack of enthusiasm, interest and character; their appearance was not appropriate and their were "personal hygiene" issues that needed to be addressed.

Heads also objected to interviewees chewing gum, wearing nose rings, bad-mouthing their present school, failing to show they liked children, not giving eye contact, having no knowledge of the school they were applying to and being unable to articulate answers.

What my friend said was that it wasn't just that only bad teachers apply. The problem is that good experienced teachers leave, and potentially good teachers, when they first start out, often find that they just can't take it and immediately run away to do other things.

The most memorable vignette my friend reported concerned an experienced teacher from Australia. This man had served for twelve satisfactory years over there, but after three days at my friend's school he'd had enough. "You won't be seeing me again." Running a school must be hard if an experienced Australian teacher can't even make a go of it.

He talked about the problem of how some head teachers aren't visible enough, spending too much time crouched over their desks ploughing through the tons of paperwork they now have to plough through, and too little time out there backing up their teachers and generally keeping in touch. I compared this to the complaints soldiers used to make during and after the First World War about commanding officers whom they never saw from one month to the next. Once again the appropriateness of the "trenches" metaphor was confirmed, because it was my friend who then said that indeed, fighting in the trenches is what teaching at a state school often feels like.

"Inclusiveness" he said, doesn't help, which confirms a regular theme here. A terrible proportion of teacher time and energy is spent persuading recalcitrant pupils just to refrain from busting up the lessons for everyone else. Add the new emphasis on not doing anything that could be said remotely to resemble assaulting the pupils (a policy which, taken in isolation, makes nothing but sense to me), and you have a recipe for chaos.

Given the kind of person I am and the kind of vibes I give off about the potential wonderfulness of education, my friend several times went out of his conversational way to emphasise how impossible it is to think of his job as "educating" in the sense he feared that I took it to be. There's no time for profound discussions about the Meaning of Life or the subtleties of History and Geography and Maths, etc. Almost all of his time is spent staying in some kind of control. He teaches science. Chemistry, actually. And his biggest problem is stopping the rowdier boys from destroying all the equipment.

In short, my friend confirmed just about every Daily Mail type right wing cliché about the horrors of state education that you care to think of.

The posh parts of the education system seem to be ticking over okay, and in some places I dare say, are getting even posher. But for the great mass of the kids of the ex-manual-labouring classes, things are getting slowly but steadily worse.

I made a point of asking my friend exactly this question. Do you, I asked, ever attend big gatherings of teachers? Not often, he said. I've done it a few times. Okay, said I, but is it you understanding that the conversation at such events among those who do regularly attend such things is upbeat, or pessimistic? Is the general opinion that things in general are getting better, or that they are, in general, getting worse?

Oh, getting worse, he said. This was said calmly and matter-of-factly. This is partly because my friend is a calm and matter-of-fact person. But I also got the impression that the fact that Things Are Getting Worse is so obvious to all concerned that it doesn't merit a raising of the voice to note the fact. Everyone already knows this, so there's no need to make a big fuss of it. Things are getting worse. Yes. Of course they are. Didn't you know?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:48 PM
Category: The reality of teaching
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March 10, 2003
Teachers with status in the real world

Well, I'm back from the depths of Kent, and I did learn a lot of use to writing for this. However, I'm afraid I made a mistake about the "Assistant Head" bit. I was muddling my friend up with another of my friends. I don't know why I did this, but I did. Sorry to you all, and especially to him if he ever gets to read this.

As it happens, my friend's relatively low place on the teacher pecking order had a direct bearing on one of the many interesting things he told me, which is that boys behave well or badly according to the status of their teacher on the teacher pecking order. "Authority" is not something that you can just whistle up with some clever body language, or not completely anyway; it is also a function of your true place in the world, of how much clout you have with the other males who matter. So a new teacher is almost certainly fair game, no matter how much "charisma" he may have, or think he has.

Question. How much does clout in the "real world" - clout outside the world of the school - count for anything, in the eyes of these teenage boys, as they size up their prey and wonder whether to launch a pack attack?

After that posh prep school I went to, I went on to another posh private school (or a "public" school, as we Brits so confusingly call these places), a school called Marlborough. I mention this partly to impress everyone, of course. It's about damn time it started to count for something that I went to one of these places. But I do have a point. Which is: that Marlborough was full of teachers (or "masters" as they were called) with "real world" clout, and often of the particular sorts that most impress teenage boys, such as sporting prowess.

I was taught English by a man called Dennis Silk, whom I remember with fondness because he was the first teacher I can recall who seemed genuinely to enjoy the things I wrote. But more to my point, this Dennis Silk was a star cricketer. He made centuries in the Oxford v. Cambridge cricket matches (at a time when the standard of Oxbridge cricket was a lot higher than it is now), and he even captained an England touring team, to New Zealand. He wasn't the absolute cream of the crop, be he was pretty close to it. Later he became the President of the MCC. Non-cricket enthusiasts won't grasp all the detail of that, but my point is, we Marlburians did.

Another of my teachers was a man called Kempson, who taught me non-Euclidian geometry, or who tried to. I can't say I remember much in the way of non-Euclidian geometry, but I do vividly recall the immense merriment this man used to take in getting us to understand what it was all about, if only temporarily. And this Mr Kempson was, in a former life, a member of the 1935 Everest Expedition. (This was the expedition which included George Mallory, who, many people believe, did actually conquer Everest but who sadly died in the vicinity of the summit before anything could be proved, if there was anything to prove. Mountaineers still debate this, I believe.)

[UPDATE: Wrong. I've since learned that Mallory died on a previous expedition, in, I think, 1924. Apologies Luckily this doesn't affect the point I'm making.]

There were plenty of other alpha males of this sort at Marlborough, teaching history and geography, maths and physics, reading the lessons in chapel, coaching sports teams, and generally keeping their eyes on things. I don't know for sure exactly how much difference it made to school discipline, because I can't compare matters with how they might have been in the absence of such people. But I'm pretty sure it did make a difference. I reckon these people kept us in order far more efficaciously than a staff would have that consisted only of non-alphas in corduroy jackets who knew nothing but the subjects they taught and had done nothing with their adult lives except teach them.

I guess your average bog standard (as the unlovely British phrase goes) secondary school doesn't contain many people like this. I've often thought that all those clapped out rock stars who now sit about in their mansions dreaming of making hit parade comebacks might make excellent school teachers. They have a been-there done-that atmosphere about them that might make a real contribution to the general willingness of boys to follow the lead that the schools are trying to impose upon them. Ah well.

This is not a posting about whether "imposing" on boys is a good or a bad thing. But I will now say that in my opinion a culture in which teenage boys are not in any way imposed upon by grown-up men is a culture which will have problems.

I'm not a voluntarist and a libertarian about education because I think that adult authority doesn't matter. I think that adult authority is, other things being equal, a very good thing. As I will, I'm sure, be arguing, in any follow-up pieces (besides this I mean) that I may manage to my earlier one entitled What is authority?, that the voluntary principle and authority go hand in hand extremely well. But authority and the voluntarism aren't the same thing, and places like Marlborough prove that you can have plenty of the first without a huge amount of the second.

This nugget of wisdom about status and how it relates to school discipline was by no means the only one that I acquired from my friend the Kent school teacher. I'm thinking now that I'll make the conversations we had into my theme of the week here. He knows who he is. My thanks to him for his wisdom, to say nothing of his hospitality.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:56 PM
Category: Boys will be boys
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