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Tuesday July 29 2008


Dear Brian,

I saw today’s Ask Slashdot question: How Do You Fix Education?, and thought of you.

This comment mentions making going to school non-compulsory.


Thanks Rob.

The commenter says: (1) Make going to school non-compulsory; (2) Privatize; (3) Do away with tenure and teachers unions; (4) Allow parents to take their kids out of failing schools.  He ends:

Before you reply, or mod down, ask yourself this. If given an unlimited amount of money for schooling your own child, would you send them to a public school, or a private school? If you opted for the private school, you’ve already agreed with many points on this list, even if you won’t admit that to yourself.

I think this is a category error.  Personally, I agree with the list of proposals, apart from (3) the union thing.  What does “do away with” mean?  Make unions illegal?  If so, then: no.  If it means allowing schools to make union membership a sacking offence, then yes.  If you don’t like that kind of school, don’t teach there.

But, putting that uncertainty to one side, the question concerns how you would change the whole system to something that would be good for everybody.  What you would now do or would like like to do for you own child, with the system unchanged, is a different question.  A major point of libertarian thinking, such as this is, is that all individuals deciding for themselves would aggregate into a good (or best available in the real world) system for all.  I think that’s right.  And a major point of collectivism is that this is not right.  Who is right about that is not illuminated by asking what any individual would personally do to escape the present mess.

This is the same argument as the one that says that socialist politicians who send their kids to private schools are being hypocritical, by revealing their true opinions to be different from their publicly stated opinions.  But thinking that private schools are now better is perfectly consistent with believing that state education could and should be changed until that is not so.  My argument with such politicians is that I think they are wrong about how to improve state education, wrong that it is capable of being improved.  I think they are quite right to do the best they can, now, for their kids.  Making your kids go to bad state schools, even when you can afford to do better, purely because you “believe in” state education, i.e. in state education being improvable at some point in the irrelevantly distant future ... now that is creepy.  I know I have said this before, but I think it’s a point worth repeating.

Monday July 28 2008

As I said, maybe the occasional thing:


Photoed in a local newsagent lask week.  Well, I’ve always thought that children can sometimes also be teachers.

Typical media coverage here.

Tuesday July 22 2008

My regular reader (me) will by now have noticed (and I have) that postings here over the last few days have become somewhat intermittent.  And indeed they have.  And what is more this is how this here will remain for the next month or two.  Some days I may put stuff up here during that time.  Other days, not.  Happy holidays everyone.

If you want educational fun, read what is being said at the Coffee House about the nightmare day had by Ed Balls, the politician doing his best not to take the blame for the SATs disaster.  Here, here, and hereHere is what opposition spokesman Gove has to say.

Sunday July 20 2008

Today I was at a party, and talked with a lady who teaches/helps to run/is involved with this school, which is run by this enterprise.

She expressed extreme pessimism about computers in education.  She said that pretty much all the vast amounts of money spent on computers in education so far has been wasted, and that all further expenditure on computers will likewise be money down the drain.  They spend enough time staring at screens as it is, without them being encouraged to stare at yet more screens when they ought to be learning things.  Computers do not encourage concentration.  They destroy it.

As for me, I don’t know.  Really, I don’t know.  I’m just passing on what she said.

If you want an old-school school, hers sounds pretty good, and there are still places going spare.  She talked about the Synthetic Phonics stuff that I have already researched, and clearly knew her stuff.  She has been asking around about a similarly good approach to maths, but has not yet found how that ought to be done.

She also said that during the last year or so, regular state schools have maybe been making some actual progress in the literacy department, what with the literacy hour, and with word getting around about Synthetic Phonics.  This despite the obfuscations spread by the government, who don’t want to admit how wrong they have been in the quite recent past.

Friday July 18 2008

Coffee House did a posting today about the SATs fiasco, and this comment, from “Sam”, caught my attention:

Now, we must remember that ETS, the American company entrusted with the contract for this year’s SATs grading, was only allowed a look in because of EU regulations. The regulations allowed for a closed bid and the lowest bidder wins. Nothing to do with, say, competence or familiarity with the system? No. I certainly didn’t vote for that, did you? There’s more than Balls cocking things up, that’s for sure!

I can remember when clever Thatcherites were rejoicing at how clever they were to be compelling public sector institutions to buy things from the lowest bidder.  And I can remember lefties saying it was daft.  In this case, the lefties have been proved correct.

Thursday July 17 2008

One of the commenters on this particularly impressive posting by Miss Snuffy, about Ray Lewis, links to this blog.  Looks good.  To the blogroll.

It’s about time I had a picture here, so this is the picture at the top of that blog:


Teaching as warfare.  That’s a very common meme, I find.  Here made absolutely explicit in the name of the blog: “Scenes from the Battleground”.

With that picture at the top, of WW2 US General Patton, as enacted by George C Scott in the movie of that name, you’d think that the blog would be about America, wouldn’t you?  But it’s not.  Subtitle: “A Blog About Teaching in Tough Schools in the UK”.

This sounds like bad news, for Glasgow School of Art:

Glasgow School of Art students have less chance of finding a job when they graduate than those studying anywhere else in the UK, according to figures.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency suggested 18% of its students were out of work six months after graduation - the highest rate in the UK.

The school’s principal said the survey was misleading as artists’ careers were not as structured as others.

As in “misleading”, but true.  What the principal is saying is that the survey is true, on account of it being true, which is clearly very unfair.  Did they include other art schools, I wonder?  If they did, that sounds like a very black mark for Glasgow.

But then again ... this might not mean is that Glasgow School of Art is bad a teaching art.  What it might mean is that Glasgow art graduates are more determined to be artists than the graduates of other art schools, and they stick with their “unstructured” careers (i.e. stay unemployed) for longer.  Instead of going off and becoming conference platform designers and interior decorators and people who assemble fake kitchens in shops, and such like.  And maybe they are staying unempl ... unstructured for longer because they reckon their artistic prospects are better than those of other graduate artists.

On the other other hand, being unstructured in Glasgow might be easier than elsewhere, because unstructure benefits are easier to get, because seeking structured employment in Glasgow is one thing, but getting it is quite another.

On the other other other hand, maybe Glasgow School of Art just turns out unemployable lunatics.  Who can say?  Interpreting statistics is also something of an art, I think.

Overall, Scottish graduates have good employment prospects with 95% going into work or further study - 1.5% more than in England, according to the figures.

Napier University in Edinburgh had more than 97% of graduates employed or in further study, the highest number of any Scottish institution in the survey.

So, at least the problem is not Scotland.

Wednesday July 16 2008

From the Times, yesterday:

The fiasco over delayed school test results affecting millions of children could result in the company responsible being sacked and forced to pay back tens of millions of pounds.

Ken Boston, the head of the exams regulator, said after an emergency hearing of MPs yesterday, that the testing system was under stress and needed modernising. He added that problems were unlikely to be resolved in time for next year’s tests.

Thousands of parents are expected to challenge the results, encouraged by the adverse publicity surrounding this year’s exams.

This week Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said schools were reporting “all kinds of problems” with marking, and told parents that they should not rely on SATs [national curriculum test] results as the sole indicator of their child’s progress. He urged schools to give parents teachers’ assessments of pupils, as well as SATs results, and advised that these be treated as “provisional”.

Yesterday Dr Boston, the chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, claimed that the company, ETS, had failed to respond to 10,000 e-mails. His officials were forced to set up and pay for a call centre to cope with complaints to the company.

However, MPs also raised questions about Dr Boston’s future, ...

The free market is one thing, and the government awarding the national contract to one national contractor is quite another.

Johnathan Pearce wants the child labour laws relaxed:

It seems to me that in part of the discussion about what “should be done” about feral kids armed with knives, there ought to be a recognition that one of the main problems that young people face in and outside school is boredom. And that can be cured, possibly, by working. We have to overcome our strange squeamishness over the employment of minors in actual jobs. I think that the rules and regulatory burdens should be relaxed so that apprenticeships become much easier for an employer to provide. I think some, if not all, of the young tearaways who are so worrying policymakers might actually feel proud of having a job, of earning money, of being able to brag about this to their lazier friends.

Commenter Walter Boswell adds this:

The importance of that simple lesson that hard work equals money and money equals more independence cannot be emphasised enough.


Tuesday July 15 2008

Kumar Sangakkara, Sri Lankan batsman and wicketkeeper, writes about why Sri Lanka has produced so many highly effective, yet highly individual cricketers:

Over the last few years Sri Lanka have had quite a few self-styled unorthodox cricketers coming through - Sanath Jayasuriya, Muttiah Muralitharan, Romesh Kaluwitharana, and now Lasith Malinga and Ajantha Mendis. It’s wonderful to have this newness, this difference, because it opens up everyone’s eyes, including fellow cricketers who might get something new from these guys to improve their game overall.

One of the reasons for so many unorthodox cricketers coming through in Sri Lanka could be, as in other parts of the subcontinent, the way kids learn to play cricket: they learn by watching, and then start playing in backyards or streets or wherever they can find space. It’s possibly there that they develop these individual styles. Unless they have access to formal coaching, they tend to develop along their own lines, especially if they come late to proper leather-ball cricket.

He talks in particular about Muralitharan, who is about to become the most prolific taker of wickets in the entire history of test match cricket, albeit with a highly unusual (some say illegal) action:

In some instances, if they are discovered at a very young age, there arises a problem when coaches start trying to make them conform to orthodoxy. All the above mentioned cricketers, with the exception of Murali, were discovered quite late. Murali had the luxury of having an open-minded, liberal, forward-thinking coach in Sunil Fernando, who let him develop along his own lines and just tidied up what needed to be tidied up without changing what made him unique.

All of this reminds me very much of the difference between how classical and rock musicians get their start.  The classicals get coached and coached, the rocksters just copy and play, in the musical equivalent of the backyard or the street, i.e. the upstairs bedroom or the garage.

Rock and rollers thrive on novelty, on being different from the pack, and this kind of start ensures that they are indeed highly individual.  But cricketers also do well by being different.  Much of Murali’s success has happened because batsmen have never faced anything quite like him before, and can’t practice against anyone else who is similar, because no-one is.

Monday July 14 2008

Carlin Romano, who teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Pennsylvania, writes about honorary degrees, in The Chronicle Review.  He begings his piece by arguing that honorary degrees do nothing for universities.  He quotes Jacques Barzun, who says: “the honorary degree as now commonly dealt out has lost its point”, and: “The Chairman of the Board of General Aphrodisiacs may be all that is said of him in the citation, but it is not a judgment on which the university should set its seal.” Universities should stick to rewarding measurable academic excellence.  MIT and Harvard eke out their existences without awarding any such degrees.  Others should follow their example, says Romano.

But then he gets to the matter of Robert Mugabe.


Yet for all this history and perspective, indicating that honorary degrees and their nullifications amount to tempests in teapots, the peculiar biography of Robert Mugabe makes the matter more complicated. Recent journalistic attention to Zimbabwe’s tragedies, welcome as it is, has provided little context about the man causing them. For that, we’re fortunate to have three incisive books on him published in the last decade: Our Votes, Our Guns: Robert Mugabe and the Tragedy of Zimbabwe, by Martin Meredith (Public Affairs, 2002); Degrees in Violence: Robert Mugabe and the Struggle for Power in Zimbabwe, by David Blair (Continuum, 2002); and Robert Mugabe: A Life of Power and Violence, by Stephen Chan (University of Michigan Press, 2003).

All paint a portrait of Mugabe that may surprise non-Africa hands ignorant of his prepresidential life. Born in the Jesuit mission station of Kutama on February 21, 1924, the third of six children in a family abandoned by his father (a dyspeptic carpenter who moved 300 miles away and took another wife), young Mugabe could not have been more bookish as he rose to become a teacher.

“All accounts describe him in the same words,” writes Blair, “diligent, quiet, studious, introverted.” Mugabe shunned smoking and drinking alcohol and “excelled academically” at every institution he attended, including South Africa’s University of Fort Hare, the hotbed of African nationalism from which Nelson Mandela had been expelled earlier. During Mugabe’s 11 years of imprisonment, from 1963 to 1974, under Zimbabwe’s white-ruled predecessor state of Rhodesia, the future president enrolled in University of London correspondence courses and earned four degrees — a master’s degree in economics, a bachelor’s degree in administration, and two law degrees — to go with the three bachelor’s degrees he already possessed, in economics, education, and history and literature.

Meredith writes of how Mugabe in prison “resumed his studies with fierce dedication, his books piled on both sides of his bed.” The prisoner’s late wife, Sally Hayfron, then living in London, copied out whole volumes by hand and posted them as letters to her husband. When Mugabe finally won release from prison, in November 1974, he held seven academic degrees.

So even now, after more than three decades in which the former Marxist revolutionary leader — seen as conciliatory toward opponents at Zimbabwe’s independence — has evolved into a murderous autocrat, Mugabe’s lust for academic credibility may endure. In the paranoid recesses of Mugabe’s octogenarian brain, stripping him of degrees may exact a toll few can imagine.

In which case, it’s probably time for Michigan State University, which doled out an honorary doctorate to Mugabe in 1990, to step up. And what about those seven earned degrees? Can a university revoke degrees earned in a correspondence course? How? By sending Mugabe a letter? Why not leave him only the eighth academic laurel he famously boasts of — “a degree in violence”?

Now, after Zimbabwe’s latest parody of democracy, the man once called “Satan’s apostle” by his also-ruthless white predecessor stands as the re-elected president of Zimbabwe. If things keep going as they’re going, however, Mugabe can forget about retiring to one of those handsomely endowed chairs at a Florida university, the sort that draw Oxford dons seeking to up their pay in a sunny place.

He simply won’t have the credentials.

A degree in education.  How about that?

The idea of stripping Mugabe of his various degrees, honorary and real, was causing much mockery on Mock The Week, when I watched the latest manifestation of it a few days ago, as did England refusing to play cricket against Zimbabwe next year.  But it would appear that even if taking his degrees away won’t now do anything to stop Mugabe, this might cause him some small degree (so to speak) of hurt.

More Mugabe honorary degree complaint here.

Sunday July 13 2008

I don’t understand this, but it sounds very silly:

The Home Office ID card yoof discussion forum has banned users “David Blunkett” and “Jacqui Smith” along with other “inappropriate” comedy logins, while laying a trail of positive comments from shadowy, spookily robotic “students”. Elsewhere in the forum the barracking has intensified since the site’s wobbly launch earlier this week, but in the Shooters Hill discussion section, a grey army of Shooters (Shooter1 onwards) chants its relentless pro-ID card mantra.

Well, almost relentless - one or two of them seem less convinced. Unsurprisingly, other forum users have challenged the bona fides of this odd crowd that never answers a question and posts without following through the debate. They’re obviously bots, right? Well, not exactly. Moderator Debbie G (who looks like somebody who knows a thing or two about ID chips) reveals that “users with the Shooters usernames are students from Shooters Hill College in Greenwich. To launch the site they were given a presentation by Jacqui Smith and then given the opportunity to log on and post.”

As the Shooters posts are timed from 9.24-9.41am on Wednesday, when Jacqui Smith (one of them anyway) launched the site, this would seem to be the case. So Smith gives presentation to a group of captive students who are then given 20 minutes to say positive things about ID cards, and the marketing geniuses at Home Office spin central then refashion them into a convincing representation of a scary robot army, right down to erasing their identities and giving them numbers instead. Epic. Smart generic username too - for her next brainwashing gig, Jacqui Smith visits Stabbers Lane Academy, Barking.

It seems to me that one of the particular sins of my generation is wanting to be in charge of things, while surrounded by the pretense that nobody is really in charge, and all are free to do what they please, i.e. as we want them to.  We don’t give orders.  They merely choose, freely, to obey.  In this case, instead of saying: we’re the government, and we’ve decided that you’ve all got to carry ID cards, they make some kids say: we want ID cards, and then they say, hey the kids want ID cards.  They’re saying it on the internet and everything.  We have to do what they say.  We did not ordain this.  We are their servants, and they have spoken.

See also: this, one of my favourite movies.  And see also, I fear, many teachers, maybe from time to time including, I also fear, me.

Boston scientists reckon they know a bit more about autism:

Researchers from Boston have discovered six new genes implicated in autism. The genes normally make new brain connections needed for learning, but their absence or silence apparently places them among many mutations that lead to the devastating disorder, which is marked by trouble with communication and social interaction.


“People think of genetic diseases as immutable and untreatable,” Walsh said in an interview. “Studies like ours and others give more hope we might not need to replace genes one by one, but find other ways of activating the genes that might be silent.”

Later in the report comes this rather chilling sentence.

The researchers studied large Middle Eastern families in which cousins had married and the incidence of autism was high.

That’s not an experiment anybody would be able to contrive otherwise.  It’s good to know that cousin-marrying can sometimes be helpful.

Saturday July 12 2008

Today I was at a party, a very good one as it happens, and as is usual at good parties, what I remember most is the clever conversations I had.  Mostly , of course, I remember the clever things that I myself said, but I do recall the occasional thing said by others, to me.

I found myself talking of Party Questions.  What I mean by Party Questions are all the questions you can ask people at parties that replace the dreaded thing you don’t ask, namely:  What Do You Do?  The reason What Do You Do? is bad question is that Party Questions are supposed to subvert the usual social order, rather than reinforce it.  What Do You Do? plays right into the hand of the winners of the regular daytime game of life.  Oh, I’m the Chairman of Shellmex BP.  I’m Wayne Rooney.  I’m a Big Cheese at the Ministry of Enormous National Importance.  It’s not so much that nobody wants to hear such things.  Actually, such answers are quite good.  The problem is that they make all of life’s losers feel small.  What you want are questions that give us losers a decent chance.

Several good Party Questions involve celebrities.  Which celebrities have you been mistaken for?  (In my case the only answer so far is: Elvis Costello.) Which celebrities have you embarrassed yourself in the presence of?  (Me?  Jenny Agutter.)

But now here comes the educational angle.  My friend Antoine Clarke, also at the party, offered a particular insight on the matter of celebrities you’ve met.  Or was it somebody else, and did I merely discuss this with Antoine?  I can’t remember.  Anyway, the insight was this: celebrities you met at a posh school don’t really count.  The value of a celebrity you knew at school is inversely proportional to the poshness of the school.  So for me, that means scrub Richard Branson, Christopher Martin-Jenkins and Mark Phillips.  The fact that I knew (of) CMJ at Marlborough counts for very little.  Marlborough was bound to contain a few subsequent high achievers.  So all that me knowing (of) CMJ at Marlborough proves is that I went to Marlborough, but have not subsequently high achieved.  Big deal.  In contrast, the fact that Antoine met, and embarrassed himself in front of, the noted pop entertainer-ess Dido at Birkbeck College (something to do with his chess club evening clashing with her performing there) counts for a great deal more.

I agree.  Discuss.  Or not, as you please.