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Wednesday April 30 2008

I’m for it:

A school is paying sixth-formers as young as 16 to teach lessons instead of hiring qualified supply staff, it emerged yesterday.

Here’s the story.  Predictably, a Union spokesperson has just been on the telly complaining about it, which is how I heard about the scheme.  Children “aren’t trained” to teach.  (We don’t want any of them proving they can, more like.) And Conservative spokesperson Nick Gibb is also suspicious.  But why isn’t he in favour of school autonomy?  Head of Chalfonts Community College Sue Tanner points out that the resulting classes are frequently better than what supply teachers from outside the school offer.

And I say that one of the classic ways you encourage people to learn a subject is to get them to teach it.  This has long been known at Sandhurst.

I wrote a rather facetious posting at my personal blog yesterday, about exposing children to germs when young, but according to commenter 6000, it’s a more serious subject than I realised:

As a scientist (although not speaking for the whole profession, I’m sure) I think we can safely say that whether it’s the underclasses, dogs or indeed the underclasses’ dogs - mixing with “germs” is a good thing - at least in the long term.

But apparently it now goes even further than just allergies - kids who attend playgroups are less likely to get leukaemia. It’s basically the same theory, but without the hay fever.

Incidentally, Black Death’s causal agent Yersinia pestis ...

I mentioned the Black Death.

... is really just E.coli with teeth. That said, it’s not one of the germs I would choose to expose my child to in order to avoid him sniffing each May. Nor one I would expect him to encounter at his playgroup.

6000 links to this recent BBC story:

Children who attend daycare or playgroups cut their risk of the most common type of childhood leukaemia by around 30%, a study estimates.

Researchers reviewed 14 studies involving nearly 20,000 children, of which 6,000 developed acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL).

It is thought early infections may help the body fight off the disease.

So this story is actually good news.

Tuesday April 29 2008

I did some ego-googling today about something else, and discovered that Tim Worstall did a post two months ago about a Samizdata posting I did entitled What use is maths?

Here’s his answer:

I would split the subject into two. For past a certain level, it most certainly is two entirely different disciplines. The first is pure maths. For those who like it (most definitely a subset of the population) it’s glorious, beautiful, engaging, even thrilling. It’s also a description of the universe as it ought to be. Any connection between results and the real world is entirely coincidental: pure mathematicians are the original “yes, that’s all very well in practice, but is it true in theory?” people. Once you climb into the higher realms (well past A levels) the value is like that of poetry. That’s not to say that more practically useful things don’t come from it, of course they do, but it’s not done for its practicality nor will anyone attempting to do it for its practicality do very well at it.

Statistics rather reverses this. Looking at it in one way it’s rather like, yes, well, this is all very well in theory but is it true in practice? We go out and gather real world information and then examine it to see what it tells us. While we might think that x happens because of y, we actually want to find out whether that is true. Or does y happen because of x? Or do they both happen because of a? Or are they simply correlated rather than caused by any of them? And many statistical tests are designed to work out how important our result is.

There’s two things that statistics are extremely useful for. The first is to teach you how to gamble: that’s the root of the whole subject anyway. Seriously, it really started with people trying to work out how to win at cards and dice. Things like the Fibonacci series, which explains things as varied as the placing of petals on a flower and possibly the curling of a wave, also explain the liklihood of throwing a 4, 5 or any other number with a pair of dice. From that we derive ! and so on.

But the second thing it’s extremely useful for is politics. The standard intro by some pantywaist who wants to steal your liberty, livelihood and freedoms is “research has shown that….”. Statistics enables you to evaluate whether research actually has shown (the death rate from Ebola is 80% so yes, clamping down on movements and civil liberties during an outbreak can be justified) or not shown ("the part time pay gap for women is 40%”, no, it isn’t, that’s comparing the wages per hour of part time women against full time men. Comparing part time women against part time men gives us 11%.) the point that the speaker is trying to make.

Which of the two you are good at, which you prefer doing, largely depends upon your mindset at the beginning. I’m not very good at either, but I do struggle to understand the statistics side as well as I can for defending those liberties, livelihoods and freedoms from those who would steal them on spurious grounds seems to me rather important.

There are also comments.

Michael J. Lewis, in the course of writing this:

It is often said that great achievement requires in one’s formative years two teachers: a stern taskmaster who teaches the rules and an inspirational guru who teaches one to break the rules. But they must come in that order. Childhood training in Bach can prepare one to play free jazz and ballet instruction can prepare one to be a modern dancer, but it does not work the other way around. One cannot be liberated from fetters one has never worn; all one can do is to make pastiches of the liberations of others. ...

Food for thought, but ...  I say: choose your own fetters.  Be your own stern taskmaster, or choose a stern taskmaster whose fetters appeal to you.  Just because fetters have their uses, that’s no excuse for enforcing, unasked, any particular set of fetters that any particular teacher happens to be waving around.  The 3Rs are just about the only universally valid fetters I can think of in my culture, but again, that doesn’t mean children have to be forced to put them on.  If they’re so great, can’t they be persuaded?  Won’t the instant rewards of putting on the “fetters” (which means they aren’t really fetters at all) persuade acceptance (ditto)?

This by Matthew Ladner, is interesting:

South Korea in fact engages in remarkably different education practices when compared to the United States. South Korea spends less per pupil, but pays their teachers more. This feat is accomplished through larger average class sizes - which are approximately twice as large in South Korea than in the United States.

Korean teachers however are paid much better and enjoy greater professional prestige than their American counterparts. The McKinsey report cites data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development showing that a 15 year veteran teachers in South Korea is paid an average of 2.5 times GDP per capita. In America, the average is a little more than 1 times GDP per capita.

Higher pay and prestige allows South Korea to recruit teachers from those in the top 5 percent of their university graduating classes. Korean schools have many applicants for every teaching job. Meanwhile, in the United States, the low upper cap on the pay fails to attract many of our brightest and most ambitious students. American schools on average recruit teachers from the bottom third of American university graduates.

Additionally, American schools once had a near monopoly on employing bright university educated women. That monopoly has since retired to the dustbin of history and will not be returning. Our national preoccupation with lowering average class size has also impacted lowered the average effectiveness of the teachers we’ve hired. The average class size in American schools has plummeted since the baby-boomers went through the system, but our test scores have remained flat.

Americans have been obsessed with lowering class size, while Korea has emphasized getting the brightest students possible into the classroom while thinking nothing of packing 40 or more children in a classroom. Who made the right choice?

My only worry with this kind of thing is the assumption that test scores necessarily measure educational success.  But then again, if you measure educational quality by real world outcomes (my preferred method), South Korea scores well with that also.

That niggle aside, like I say, very interesting.  Joanne Jacobs found it first, to whom thanks.

I seem to be writing rather a lot about sociology, in the sense of how different power structures elicit radically different behaviour from the same people.

It occurs to me that one of the particular clichés of our culture just now, the stroppy middle class teenager, proves the point even more forcefully.  I refer to the teenager who is (a) monstrously badly behaved towards his or her own parents, but who is, simultaneously, (b) much better behaved towards other people.  The difference in behaviour is explained by the fact that the parents are defenceless against their own teenagers.  Can’t live with them, can’t kill them, etc.  In particular, can’t either torture them or else chuck the ungrateful parasites out into the street and slam their front doors in their faces.  Whereas, other people can do various versions of this.  They can either chuck them out, or shun them.

imageThis syndrome applies particularly to middle class teenagers, because their parents are the most dutiful and anti-punitive, hence most defenceless, and because middle class teenagers are quite well educated and have good prospects in the world at large, provided they treat the world at large with a modicum of politeness and don’t completely piss it off.  Their parents will forgive them no matter what they do.  The world will not be so forgiving.  The teenagers know this and act accordingly.

Middle class teenagers who are vicious to their parents but nice to others remind me of King Leopold II of Belgium.  King Leopold II was, simultaneously, a satisfactory King of Belgium, and a spectacularly disgusting ruler of the Belgian Congo, which was his personal possession and in which he murdered and plundered at will.  He deserves to be far better known, as the first of the great modern mass murderer-predators, alongside Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and the rest of them.  King Leopold II behaved nicely in Belgium because he had to.  King Leopold II behaved disgustingly in Africa because he could.  Exact same principle.

Monday April 28 2008

Friend and Telegraph blogger Alex Singleton has a piece up about teaching good manners in schools:

Today’s Daily Telegraph reports on a new survey showing that Britain is becoming less polite, with 73.8 per cent believing manners should be part of the school curriculum. Being an optimist, I’m not normally one of those people who think the world is in terminal decline (millions of people worldwide will be lifted out of poverty this year, after all).

Nevertheless, there is something severely wrong with the ethos of Britain’s schools today.  Far from being places where people learn responsibility and civility, schools are too often anarchic. The old world of distant, overly-strict teachers and corporal punishment is thankfully long gone. But an overly-liberal teaching establishment has led to the baby being thrown out with the bathwater.

I wonder.  I don’t wonder about whether manners are getting worse.  I am sixty, and of course they getting worse!  But I do wonder how exactly schools are supposed to improve matters.  I agree with Alex that schools being allowed to expel would help.  But is that enough?

I am, I suspect, with various commenters on this blog who say things like: “My ideas about what to do about this problem are far too radical to fit into a comment”, having previously hinted that they find whatever rather bossy opinion I have just expressed to be rather bossy.

In Brian World, school attendance is voluntary, and there are plenty of other things that a young person might do instead, the basic one being: work and earn money!  I favour the reintroduction of child labour, of the economic exploitation of children.  Certainly of adolescents, which is where I would start, were I a politician with any chance of making such notions stick.  During or after stints of paid work - because the work was really good, or really bad - children might then see a clearer path forward into productive adulthood, and decide for themselves what sort of educational stuff might help with that.  In short, when attending a school, or anything like a school, they would be there for a reason, and hence anxious to fit in and play by the rules, in order to get what they came for.  If they don’t and can’t get what they came for, they leave.

All of which, I suggest, would be much more polite than the etiquettically deteriorating world of compulsory school that Alex Singleton describes, even the leaving bit.  Rudeness has its origins in compulsion.  Politeness has its origins in reciprocity.  If a teacher is teaching you something you want to learn and you don’t want her to stop, you will put up with her foibles and demands, her occasional spells of irrational bossiness.  If an employer is paying you wages that you appreciate and want to keep on getting, ditto.  You will sympathise that he perhaps has a lot on his plate, several employees to worry about (to say nothing of suppliers and customers).  She has many pupils to teach.  Good manners are, in essence, seeing things from the other person’s point of view, and trying not to hurt their feelings, even if they are being rather rude to you.

Another way of putting the above is to say that schools should be more like universities are now.  For all their faults, universities are an order of magnitude more polite than schools, because everyone there decided to be there, and can bugger off if they remain too childish (interesting word that) in their behaviour.

I recall once, several decades ago, helping out at a local youth club near where I lived.  Well, trying to help out.  In truth very little good was being achieved by anyone at this enterprise.  Anyway, while getting to know these boys, I started to notice how very much more polite and sensible they would suddenly - suddenly - become, once they had stopped being mere boys with no particular reason to be polite to anyone, and had become wage-earners, with every reason to be polite or the wages might stop.  I repeat, suddenlyThe Rules changed overnight, and so did their demeanour.

They had always known what good manners are.  The difference was that now they had a reason to practice them, whereas before they had had no reason to be bothering with them.  If Britain is becoming less polite, I think that’s because a significant minority of people in our society now seem to have no need or opportunity to work, ever, at all.

Rather ill-thought through, I realise.  But blogging is often more like thinking aloud than presenting the well-ordered results of such thinking.

Sunday April 27 2008

From today’s Sunday Telegraph, I learn two things.  The country’s most expensive schools are putting up their fees a lot, and revolting over league tables:

Eton and St Paul’s are to boycott this year’s exam league tables, claiming the focus on raw results is killing good teaching and damaging education.

The elite public schools are refusing to submit their results to the Independent Schools Council for publication in August, following the release of A-levels and GCSE grades.

Announcing the joint decision this week, Martin Stephen, the high master of St Paul’s boys school in west London, will also launch a scathing attack on the Government’s “politically driven” performance tables, published in January.

The “nonsensical” data, which give equal weighting to A-level physics and a qualification in flower arranging, is in effect lying to parents, he will say.

Bollocks.  He already has said it.  Sorry (as we English often say when we aren’t at all sorry but are in fact putting the conversational knife in and twisting it vigorously), but I have an extreme aversion to bullshit press release speak, even when what is being said is quite interesting.  See also this posting.  I believe I even feel a Samizdata attack on these cretinous creations coming on.

So anyway, what these two stories demonstrate is the difference between taking orders from the government, and taking orders from individual parental paying customers.  The government wants the appearance of educational improvement, or you don’t get your government money.  In state schools, that is to say, the government is the customer.  Parents paying for “private” education want actual education, in exchange for the horribly escalating fees they are paying.  And whoever is paying has a pretty good chance of getting what they are paying for.

Just why these fees are escalating is a whole different story, in my opinion.  I have my theories about that, which you will doubtless learn one day.  Just not this day.

Saturday April 26 2008

Western Civilisation collapse alert:

Harry Potter has taken his place alongside such greats of English literature as Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and is required reading for A-level English students.

J.K. Rowling’s boy-wizard has been added to the syllabus in a move that has prompted fresh claims of “dumbing down” in education standards.

Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone is being offered as a ‘set text’ by the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA), the UK’s largest exam board, which is responsible for nearly half of the country’s exams.


But horrified education experts fear Harry will rob the A-level of credibility.

If it’s fun, it can’t be literature.

Friday April 25 2008

Here’s a piece by a long-time favourite of mine, P. J. O’Rourke, about his trip to the giant US aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt.  I hope that there will be very varied responses from the readers of this blog to the political tone of this article, reflecting what I hope are the varying political attitudes of my readers.  But in among his political ruminations, O’Rourke makes an interesting and uncontroversial point about the age of many of the people who work on this huge and intricately functioning vessel, by quoting something said to him by the chief petty officer:

These are supremely dangerous jobs. And most of the flight deck crew members are only 19 or 20. Indeed the whole ship is run by youngsters. The average age, officers and all, is about 24. “These are the same kids,” a chief petty officer said, “who, back on land, have their hats bumped to one side and their pants around their knees, hanging out on corners. And here they’re in charge of $35 million airplanes.”

I didn’t study sociology for nothing.  Okay, it was a Mickey Mouse subject compared to something like physics, but the central fact of the subject was (is) indeed a fact.  There most definitely is such a thing as society – societies plural to be exact – and it is (they are) a hell of a force.  The same people, depending on the circumstances they find themselves in, have it in them to behave in radically different ways, as different as the two kinds of young people described in the above paragraph.  You absolutely do not have to be in favour of enormous aircraft carriers to accept the truth of all that.

Which is all a different way of saying what I earlier said in this posting.  That was merely about how the same teachers get different results in different schools, with different rules.  But the principle is exactly the same.


That is all for today.  At ease.

Thursday April 24 2008

At English Russia, there are some delightful pictures of a fishing lesson:


Who says parents can’t teach?

The other day there was a small flap about a spelling mistake on the Labour Party’s website.  It was soon corrected, but not before fun was had by bloggers:


I think this nicely illustrates that spelling can still be very important, if only because if you can’t do it, some people are liable to think you stupid.  The convention seems to have arisen that if you miss-spell blog comments, that’s okay.  But it will be a while before spelling excellence as excellance on something like a party political website fails to raise any sort of titter.

However, while checking out the Labour site for the purposes of the above posting, I noted something I consider far sillier, in the form of a prominently advertised piece by Ed Balls entitled Fighting for youth facilities in Camden.  That seems to me a piece of thoughtless English far worse than a mere spelling mistake, which was, as I say, quickly corrected.  There are, I assume, no plans to change that into something that reeks a bit less of the very adolescent belligerence that these youth facilities are presumably intended to curb.


LONDON (Reuters) - Britain was hit by the most wide-ranging wave of strikes in a decade on Thursday, with more than 100,000 public sector employees, from teachers to coastguards, striking against the Labour government.

It was another blow to Prime Minister Gordon Brown after he was forced by party rebels into a humiliating policy reversal over tax cuts on Wednesday and came a week ahead of local elections that will be his first major test at the ballot box.

Driving instructors, job centre workers and employees in pension and benefits offices joined teachers and coastguard operators in the one-day strike over pay. The unions estimated that between 100,000 and 400,000 people joined the action. ...


Thousands of striking teachers marched through central London in a peaceful demonstration, bearing placards aloft. Public opinion was divided, with many supporting their stand and many others - largely parents - frustrated at the disruption.

I have no wisdom at all to offer about this, and feel little inclination to offer non-wisdom.  But I seem to recall Mr Chalk saying that one day was not nearly enough and would accomplish nothing.  I wonder what he has to say.  Bingo:

If you want something then get everyone together, go on strike and stay out until you get what you believe you deserve. I’d respect that whether I thought the demand was right or wrong because it shows determination, courage and strength.

Half hearted one day efforts can simply be dismissed by the Government. The only reason any schools are closing is because Heads invariably take the easy out and shut the school (invoking the magic genie of ‘Health and Safety’) whether its a millimeter of snow or three teachers not turning up. With the numbers that are usually off sick anyway, most schools wouldn’t even notice.

Yes.  If that’s the worst strikes Britain has had in a decade, then we’ve been pretty strike free.

If I went on strike, Kings Cross Supplementary would collapse in ruins.  Or, maybe not.

UPDATE: Fraser Nelson is also unsympathetic to the strikers.  Guardian blogger Polly Curtis is unsure.

Wednesday April 23 2008

Here’s a snap I took last night, coming out of Kings Cross Supplementary at about a quarter to eight, which is why I put it here.  Also, this blog needs livening up with pictures whenever there’s an excuse.  There I was, walking on the little road that leads to the bigger road back to the station, I looked up, and that’s what I saw.  This is why the world has digital cameras, to sieze moments like this:


I could just see that over over the fence behind the bobbly light thing in the foreground.  At no other point on my journey was any of this visible, and in any case, special effects lighting like this can disappear in a blink.  I thought about cropping it, to get the sun, the bobble and the cranes and little else, but the photo is a bit blurry for that, so that’s it, just as it came out of the camera.

There is probably some educational moral I could inflict on you about this, but I’ll leave you to decide about that.  Suffice it to say that last night, the weather was extremely pleasant, and that this makes a huge difference to the pleasure you get from something like the short little spells of volunteer teaching that I do.  If the travelling is unpleasant, that’s a great chunk of the time you spend on it all being unpleasant, so the teaching had better be good.  But yesterday, no such grumpy thoughts obtruded.  And, the teaching was good, as it usually is at Kings Cross Supplementary, given that what I do is very easy.

Monday April 21 2008

I wonder if this will do any good:

The Government will continue its concerted attack on teacher workloads today, by launching the first-ever independent scrutiny unit made up of frontline teachers, to cut red tape and free schools of bureaucracy.

The Implementation Review Unit (IRU) is a key component of implementing the national workforce agreement and will tackle unnecessary paper work, assess workload implications and reduce bureaucratic processes. It shows the continued progress and delivery by signatories to reduce workloads and help teachers focus on improving pupil learning.

Trouble is, all this happened five years ago.

I have now read the first of these three pieces, and am greatly looking forward to reading the other two.  Here’s how the first one starts:

My husband Jason is a major video game geek. We have boxes in the garage, full of all his old game systems, and the games he couldn’t trade back in for credit on newer ones. The guys at the local GameCrazy don’t know his name; they just call him “big spender.”

I’ve known about this fascination since we started dating, and in fact, his ability to press the pause button and continue to interact with the people in the room was one of the things about him that impressed me to begin with. We’d curl up together, him with the latest Zelda, me with my laptop, and I’d cheer with him when he beat a level, and be dutifully sad when the solution to the puzzle eluded him. We discussed the ethics of cheats, and whether it was worth it or not. To this day, I get all nostalgic about our dating days when I hear the startup music to “The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.”

When we had our first child, Jason and Rowan spent many the happy hour cuddling together, while Jason narrated game strategy, and Rowan soaked up the comfort and security of being in his Papa’s arms. That’s not a direct benefit of game playing by any stretch, but it does set the scene for What Happened Next.

Rowan pretty much demanded a controller of his own from the time he could make his hands obey his direction. And he knew the difference between when the controller was connected, and when it was not. No substitutions tolerated; he wanted to play.

Some amazing father-son bonding times have happened in front of The Box. Sometimes, it’s a game that Rowan can play, sometimes, Rowan sits and watches Jason play and asks questions. Part collaboration, part adoration, it’s precious time that the two of them share together. Usually, I go to bed pretty early, so the two pals hang out, and more nights than not, Rowan still falls asleep in Papa’s arms while they play together.

Just for that alone, I’d say video games were worth it and then some.

Deep thanks to Adriana for alerting me to this lady (see in particularly this).  She and Adriana are collaborating on, if I understand it right, stuff like this.

More on laptops in the lecture room here.  “Prof. Anonymous” says:

… If they miss two weeks of school and show up for the final with a hangover, I say “your funeral, dude.” To me, in-class internet surfing falls under the “your funeral” policy. If students want to bomb my final because they weren’t paying attention to the lecture, then go for it.

Sounds like he might think about sticking his lectures on those laptops.  The trouble is, the way Prof. Anonymous tells it, his lectures haven’t changed much over the last decade or so, so he might put himself out of a lecturing job.

Thanks to Instapundit for the link, who is, like me, fascinated by laptops, especially very small ones.

Sunday April 20 2008

Speaking as a more-or-less completely (assuming a mere degree doesn’t count) unqualified sort-of teacher(’s assistant), I am having a lot of fun reading all the comments on this piece.  (Sorry, this link to the TES blog doesn’t work properly.  If you really want to find this piece and all its comments, without a lot of nonsense about subscribing, you have to go to where it says “Home”.  When there, go to the column with “Community” in blue at the top, go down to where it says “Blogs”, and click on where it says “Should unqualified people be teaching in our schools?” I kinow.  Ridiculous.  You’d almost think it was designed to keep casual onlookers away.)

When you finally get there, what you encounter is qualified and unqualified teachers furiously trying to convince one another, or perhaps third party onlookers like me, of their educational excellence, both sides often using English that is badly spelt and rather ungrammatical.

A persistent idea emerges, in the form of protestations from qualified teachers that unqualified persons aren’t allowed to perform brain surgery, therefore unqualified teaching should be similarly forbidden.  This is very silly.  No non-surgically-qualified parent performs brain surgery on his child either, yet parents who are “not qualified to teach” constantly teach their own children, often very successfully.  If the comparison held up, parents who were (a) not qualified teachers but who (b) ever taught their children anything would have to be done for child abuse.  (I know.  Don’t give them ideas.) I mean, when did you last hear of a child dying, straight away, because – and only because – of incompetent teaching?

Associated with the brain surgery meme is the constantly repeated statement that if you are not a qualified teacher, you aren’t a teacher.  It’s an on-off thing, like being pregnant or not pregnant, and if you don’t have the relevant capital letters after your name, you ... are ... not ... a ... teacher.  (Their punctuation, not mine.)

The reason only “qualified surgeons” are called “surgeons” is because “unqualified surgeons” don’t get to do any surgery.  If they did it adequately (which is a very big if - but if) they’d also be surgeons.  Just not qualified surgeons.  But this is very rare.  Teaching by “unqualified” teachers, on the other hand, happens all the time.  I know this.  I do it myself.

However, the strength of a case is not determined by how silly are its silliest proponents.  I am sure that some schools do indeed economise by hiring bad unqualified teachers instead of good qualified ones.  But the cure for that is not to simply pass a law forbidding the hiring of unqualified teachers, bad or good.

Saturday April 19 2008

Last week, I think it was, I was at a dinner, and I sat next to someone who is both a mother and a schoolteacher.  She said several things of great interest to me, one in particular.  She said that many parents, her included, have extreme difficulty teaching their own children.  Not being a parent, I can’t intuit all the nuances of that, but maybe I understand.  Maybe.

If you think that the job of a teacher is to push, to judge, to bestow or withhold approval according to what’s been done or done badly or not done, and in a rather emotionally detached and perhaps even cold and hostile and confrontational manner, then you might very well feel that all of that would conflict with being a parent, especially with being a mother.  Well, if that’s what you think being a teacher should mean, and if that’s what you think your children must have done to them, then it does indeed make sense to outsource it.  “Stretching” children is one thing, and loving and nurturing them is something quite else.

Another big difference between being a teacher and being a parent is that parents cannot simply give up with their children, whereas most teachers, ultimately if not immediately and on a whim, can.  So, a disaster in the teacher/pupil relationship, though disastrous, is not nearly so disastrous as a disaster between a parent and a child.  The kind of teaching I have described in the previous paragraph does have quite a bit of potential disaster built into it.  Or, which may well be sufficient as far as the feelings of the parent are concerned, it might well feel as if it has.  Therefore, it may be something that a parent is reluctant to do.

However, as far as working out what she meant by what she said, the above two paragraphs have been guesswork.  Maybe she had something else in mind.  She only said what she said, that many parents, her included, have extreme difficulty teaching their own children.  Alas, we did not pursue it.

That teaching is something many parents can’t do, or really don’t want to do, is something that someone like me who now aspires to be a “teacher” might have a vested interest in believing.  “Teachers” want to believe that they can supply something essential to the development of children that parents, almost by their nature, cannot.

This may certainly be true of teaching something highly technical or expert, that most parents may not know.  But the barrier there is knowledge, rather than anything deeply or complicatedly emotional.  If your mother knows French or Physics, surely she can teach you that.  Can’t she?

Blog postings do not have to reach any solid conclusions.  I just wanted to record that proposition, and fix it in my mind as something to think about.

Home-educating parents have surely encountered this proposition many times, and responded to it many times.

UPDATE:  Carlotta’s posting today, which I have only just clocked, and which is a response to this, throws light on the above dilemma:

Actually, I only became acutely aware of the constantly high degree of sense of responsibility and need for involvement in the education of one’s children recently when for the first time in six years that I spent a couple of days without either of my kids and I found that the pressure that I assumed was a normal part of life simply lifted. Yep, it was a nice holiday, but the thing is, isn’t this level of responsibility really what parenting is meant to be about?

That pressure might be something that many parents just don’t want.  And, unlike Carlotta, they might feel that such pressure might make them into worse parents, so is best lessened.  Both attitudes make perfect sense to me!

Friday April 18 2008

This is a story about a couple of student entrepreneurs, and part of it is about how hard it is to start businesses in the UK.

But this was the bit that particularly interested me:

Both say the final impetus to launch their own company came at Oxford after they joined the university’s student society, Oxford Entrepreneurs (OE) and attended networking events at the Said Business School.

Since its launch five years ago, OE has become the largest student entrepreneur society in the UK, with more than 1,200 members – one in ten of whom are running their own companies.

Student entrepreneur societies.  Interesting.  Maybe you can’t teach entrepreneurship.  But this certainly suggests that you can learn it, if you really want to.  Try learning more here.

Thursday April 17 2008

Diplomatic bottlenecks on the horizon:

The government’s flagship new Diploma qualification for England risks failing if flaws are not ironed out, an exam board head has warned.

Good luck with that ironing, of the flaws, out of the flagship.  Nevertheless, this BBC report certainly holds water and hits the bullseye.  This new exam system may indeed put the spanner out of the frying pan into the pigeons.

He said teachers would have had only three days’ training before the roll-out in September.

So now the flagship is being rolled out.  David Laws of the Liberal Democrats says:

“Ed Balls should now seriously consider introducing a simpler General Diploma, retaining GCSEs and A-levels as building blocks ...”

And it is made of building blocks.

It all sounds like a potential Heathrow Terminal 5 style powderkeg meltdown tidal wave of disaster in the making.

Wednesday April 16 2008

The usual assumption, which I have tended to some extent to accept (in the absence of knowing any evidence about it), is that home-schooling is fine when done by well-educated parents, but perhaps rather less fine when done by less well-educated parents.  But now read this, from the Fraser Institute:

TORONTO, ON—Home schooling appears to improve the academic performance of children from families with low levels of education, according to a report on home schooling released today by independent research organization The Fraser Institute.

“The evidence is particularly interesting for students who traditionally fall through the cracks in the public system,” said Claudia Hepburn, co-author of Home Schooling: From the Extreme to the Mainstream, 2nd edition and Director of Education Policy with The Fraser Institute.

“Poorly educated parents who choose to teach their children at home produce better academic results for their children than public schools do. One study we reviewed found that students taught at home by mothers who never finished high school scored a full 55 percentage points higher than public school students from families with comparable education levels.”

Thanks to Carlotta for the link.  I’m sure that the home-schooling fraternity/sorority has known that for years, but if true it can stand any amount of repetition, don’t you think?  It would, however, be interesting to know if this was so true before the internet.  My guess is: yes.

Tuesday April 15 2008

Earlier this evening I was back at Kings Cross Supplementary, after the Easter Break.  I taught Small Boy, who is really very clever and doing very well.  And I assisted Mr Maths in his efforts to explain averages.

But before it began, I happened to buy several exotic juice bottles at Kings Cross station, and then I met Miss Headmistress on the way there, and she said she was rather thirsty and I gave her one of my bottles.  Something combining apple juice and tea.  She liked it.

imageWhen we were all done and on our way back to the railway station, Miss Headmistress and I were talking about computers and computer games and suchlike, and I was able to ask her about that Nintendo Maths Training thing I photoed on Sunday.  Having got into her good books with the juice, I felt free to really press her on the subject of how good it is.  It turned out she had actually done that very programme for a bit, a few months back.  I forget the details of the conversation, but I can report that in Miss Headmistress’s opinion, it is very good, and is everything I hoped it might be.  Good practice.  Cleverly programmed to respond to individual skill levels.  You can feel yourself getting better at sums as you do it, a bit each day.  It remembers what you’ve done (according to who you signed in as), and gives you exercises graded to your level of attainment.  Different people can sign in under different names, and it remembers who is who and keeps them separate.  It is, in short, everything that computerised Kumon ought to have become, but (I (suspect) hasn’t, on account of Kumon (I suspect) disapproving of computers.

Next time, I must remember to ask the boys at Kings Cross Supplementary what they think of Nintendo Maths Training.  Boring?  Okay?  Good?  Addictive?

This is a huge story. Because, sooner or later, the verdict on one of these things is going to be: addictive!  And, what these gadgets will be able to teach will get more and more elaborate.  Historians will look back on this as one of the most important things now happening, right up there with major wars.  I’ve said that before, I know.  Too bad.  It’s too true and too huge not to be repeated, a lot.

Monday April 14 2008



“Catnipmusic” writes this caption:

School photograph of Liverpool Insitute High School Lower School taken in April 1956. Includes pupils Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Arthur Gilbert (my dad!). Scanned and spliced from my dad’s original photo. Best viewed at original size, I’ve ringed the positions of the two Beatles (and me dad).

I have since found out that Neil Aspinall is between and above the two guys to the left of my dad. Also, a section of the photo with George Harrison in was used in the cover for his solo album “Dark Horse”.

I’ve added the Neil Aspinall link.  I didn’t know who he was, and guessed you might not.  Follow the first link above to get the picture bigger.  There’s something very evocative about these giant combination school photos.  I’m always on the lookout for horizontal photographic decoration for my blogs.  Pictures are not good for teaching reading because guessing that “apple” says “apple” when there’s a picture of an apple isn’t reading at all.  But pictures are good for persuading readers that someone is taking an interest in doing this blog, and not just going through the motions.

The Liverpool Institute had an interesting subsequent history:

After closure of the Liverpool Institute for Boys, the building stood empty and negected, the roof leaking and the walls crumbling. In 1987 it was announced that the LI Trust (under control of Liverpool Council’s Education Department) would grant use of the building and site to a new educational establishment. Paul McCartney had returned to his old school when with Wings he had played a concert there in 1979. After the school’s closure in 1985 McCartney determined to save the building and replace the school with another type of educational institute - a ‘fame school’ - to assist students of the dramatic arts. Liverpool Council, which remains the controller of the Liverpool Institute Trust established in 1905, agreed to allow LIPA use of the building under a lease which continues to preserve its future for educational purposes.

Under McCartney’s sponsorship and financial assistance, the building was rebuilt entirely behind its old facade, preserving only the entrance corridor and school hall, and re-opened in 1996 under the name of its new occupants, the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA). This all-new institute is currently affiliated with LJMU and is no longer a Liverpool secondary school.

Blog and learn.

Sunday April 13 2008

Yes, get yourself a degree in Tesco studies:

DEGREES designed to widen higher education are to become available from Tesco.

The supermarket chain is to offer its own qualification in retail management, including the arts of display design, special offers and efficient shelf stacking. Teenagers may soon be able to study vocational courses to A-level standard at McDonald’s, a scheme announced in January, before going to Tesco for their degree.

The Tesco FD(A) (Foundation Degree (Arts)) is to be launched this month and will be offered to other retailers who can adapt it.

Manchester University are helping out.

Coincidentally, I was in my local Tesco this afternoon, and took a photograph which included (after much cropping and photo-enhancing to enable anything to be read) this:


Here‘s more blurb on this.  In its emphasis on practising easy stuff until more difficult stuff becomes easy also, rather than busting your head against sums which are too hard for you to do easily, it sounds a lot like Kumon.  When I helped out at a Kumon Centre, I remember thinking (and blogging) to the effect that they ought to comuterise their stuff, but probably won’t because they are too keen on keeping control of everything.  Looks like Professor Kageyama is stealing a march on Professor Kumon.  However, it only seems to be available for Nintendo.

The big “11” means that this is their eleventh most popular disc on sale.  Of any sort, I think.

So says the BBC.  Classrooms will be next, I predict.

Now this is what I call parental choice:

The extraordinary thing about the Stockman siblings, who were adopted from an orphanage in China, is that they have never been near a school and never will, if their parents, film-makers Annabel and Olivier Stockman, have anything to do with it.

Chung Chung and Hua Hua are what is known as “home-eds”, raised entirely outside the school system. Their parents did consider local primary schools, but were unimpressed: the children emerging from the schools seemed alarmingly regimented, drilled to act and behave in a certain way rather than try to discover themselves as individuals.

Home-eds are in such a small minority that most people, myself included, have only the sketchiest notion of what it entails. Does mum have to mug up on algebra? Does dad give PE lessons? Do snoops from the local council come knocking on the door?

The answer, in a nutshell, is none of the above. The education Chung Chung and Hua Hua are receiving is gloriously eclectic. ...

Sounds about par for the course.  You can read the whole thing here.

Saturday April 12 2008

Here‘s the story:

A council has used powers intended for anti-terrorism surveillance to spy on a family who were wrongly accused of lying on a school application form.

And here‘s what Nick Cowen of the Civitas Blog thinks about it.

Friday April 11 2008

I’ve been out all day and I’m about to go out again, but luckily for me Snuffy has been at a wedding, and picked up some interesting news about Canada:

The bride was educated at Oxford and is now a teacher. The wedding was filled with similar sorts. One British woman I met was teaching in Canada with her husband who was completing a PhD at the University of Toronto, with plans to return here to do a PGCE and join the rest of us in the profession. As she had taught in both countries, I asked her to compare the education systems. A look of horror appeared across her face. Out tumbled story after story about Canadian teachers she has known who have tried to teach in England and have not survived. She and her husband are secretly terrified about returning. The pupils in Canada are not rude. They aren’t badly behaved. They are cheeky at times, naughty in some cases. They are, as one would expect children to be. As she cradles her cute baby, she leans over to me and whispers that truthfully they would like to stay in Canada. But it’s too late. They are bracing themselves for the return.

Someone should give this woman a book deal.

Thursday April 10 2008

James Forsyth, at the Coffee House, talking about what the Conservatives have in mind for schools:

Once Gove’s supply-side reforms have been enacted, parents will be able to pick schools for their children rather than having the schools pick the pupils. Any school that isn’t up to scratch is simply going to see parents sending their children elsewhere.

In the short run, at least, I believe I see problems.

One of the most vital features of every good school I have ever attended, observed or heard of, is that (a) it has the right to refuse entry to pupils, and (b) it has the right to expel pupils who, despite repeated warnings, do not behave as the school wishes.

If a popular school does not have the right to refuse entry, does that mean that it has the obligation to educate as many children as want to go there, regardless of how crowded it gets, or of how much it is obliged to expand (even if it would prefer not to expand, thank you very much)?  Ludicrous.  Places at any particular school must be rationed.  To demand anything else would be insane.  The right to reject has to be there, if only to reject those towards the back of the queue, regardless of any judgments made of individual pupils in that queue.  (Not that there is anything wrong with doing that, either.)

What of the right to expel?  If schools do not have the right to expel, a lot of good parents, of (at least potentially) well-behaved children, are going to be disappointed, because discipline in the schools they choose will surely be as bad as ever.  Good schools do not use the expulsion threat wantonly or routinely, but it has to be there.  You cannot alter unacceptable behaviour if, actually, you are obliged to accept it.

In the very short run, supply will be what it is now, and I do agree that this may change.  But how soon?  Are the Conservatives ready for the toughing-it-out period that they will surely face, while new schools laboriously lumber towards the new market, finding somewhere to operate, getting local permission to operate, having been reassured that the rules have changed.  Again, will they so lumber?  Will they be so reassured?  They could lose a lot of money and waste a lot of effort if they are promised rights that they end up not having.  Remember, getting politics out of something is itself a political process.

And what of the parents of children who do get expelled?  They are now being promised “the school of your choice”.  Not only will they not get the school of their choice - see above - but they are liable not to get any school at all, if the right to reject and to expel is taken seriously.

I favour schools having the right to reject and expel.  But part of the reason I favour this is that I favour certain “customers” being handed the unwelcome news that no teacher of the usual sort wants anything to do with their children until they behave at least somewhat better than they are behaving now.

So, will the government simply take charge of all these miscreants?  If it doesn’t, the voters will get very agitated.  If it does, it will need many more juvenile miscreant hutches than it now has.

Here to, even in the most low-end part of the market, I believe that the market will, eventually, if allowed to, supply far better answers than the state does now, in the form of more sports oriented, more militaristic, more open air and shouty schools such as more vigorously feral juveniles might improve in and become civilised in.  A sort of free market answer to all that talk about bringing back national service.  But, will the politicians be willing to wait for such things to happen?

I’m no politician, so I naturally favour honesty about these things, rather than politics.  At present, the way it seems to me is that for many, if the Conservatives attempt what they say they will attempt, things will get worse before they start getting better.  So will mere politics be good enough?  It will probably be good enough to help the Conservatives win their next election.  But will it be good enough to win the winning, so to speak, and actually make education in Britain get any better?  My questions are not rhetorical.  I’m genuinely asking, and am open to the idea that I have missed all kinds of answers that will sooth my fears.  As so often, much of the point of this posting is to remind me of the state of my thinking just now.  And as for those reading over my shoulder, so to speak, I won’t be able to say: I said that!  But, I may be able to say: I did wonder about that.

Wednesday April 09 2008

Indeed.  At the top it says:

Everyone has something to learn, everyone has something to teach.

Via the MH.  Who says:

But most of all this seems to be the first educational institution (technically you can give it that old-fashioned title) which has knowledge rather than qualifications as its raison d’être, and as such I find it very exciting indeed.

I will be dropping in from time to time to see how this develops.  The blog is now blogrolled.

Tuesday April 08 2008

Ah, the USA!  How can I ignore it?  This time it’s robots playing basketball.  Talk about the revenge of the nerds.  Geeks making their own mechanical jocks!  Sixty two teams.  Two from the UK! Thank you Instapundit.

Jay Matthews of the Washington Post writes about Favorite Education Blogs of 2008.  If a non-USA edublog was mentioned I missed it.  But you may not mind that.

Earlier in the week I received a press release from something called TutorByTxt.com, which I actually think is rather interesting.  Here it is:

Look at any group of teenagers and no matter what their background or social group, they all have one thing in common, the mobile phone. The mobile is now a ubiquitous part of any teenagers kit.

TutorByTxt.com is a new service that is using the affinity teenagers have for their mobile phones and turning them into a education tools to help them pass their exams.

The service allows pupils to receive daily texts that are the modern day flash cards for GCSE subjects. They also provide pairs of texts that arrive as a question and answer to test the pupil’s knowledge of the subject.

The schools service allows teachers to choose either our texts or write their own text cue cards or Q and A pairs, then send them to groups of pupils. Because SMS will work on almost all phones, compatibility is not an issue. All texts are delivered after 4pm so as not to disrupt the school day.

The Parent version of the service allows the parent to receive the same text as their children, or they can send the question to the child and have the answer sent to their phone.

Martin Baker the managing director of TutorByTxt.com commented that he was looking at how to integrate the mobile phone into education in a simple and effective way. There is a drive to build ever more powerful applications for phones but sometimes simple works.

It is a measure of how interested I am by this press release that I am willing to reproduce the phrase “Martin Baker the managing director of TutorByTxt.com commented ...”.  This usage suggests a non-existent social event at which this non-existent commenting happened.  No it didn’t.  No he didn’t.  Somebody wrote it, most likely Martin Baker himself, alone, in his office, or maybe his bedroom.  I know, I know, this is how press releases are written by people who know how to write them.  And I despise it, and I invite you to despite is also.  But, I let that pass.

Talking to other parents it was noticeable that most had not been through the same structure of education as their children are now going through, either because of the change to the Key Stage structure and exams or because they attended a school in a different country. A common comment was that they were getting left behind by their child’s homework. I was looking for a solution that could allow them to be more involved. By using the txt service parents can get more involved with their child’s education.

The service is has launched with GCSE texts in Maths and Science.

Future developments in the pipeline are texts in different languages for parents and pupils new to the UK.

I have no idea whether or how this works, or if it will catch on.  But it’s an interesting line of thinking.  Plus I’m prejudiced in favour of mentioning it because it’s not from the USA.

However, I suspect that the educational impact of texting will be far more subtle than just what you get when you stick “education” on top of it.  I mean, regular telephones have already changed the world, but their “educational impact” is rather hard to track.  Well, let’s see if these guys send out any more press releases.  I suspect that not a lot more will be heard about this, but I’d enjoy being wrong.

Monday April 07 2008

Blogs like the Spectator Coffee House blog keep tabs on Conservative education policy so don’t have to, and this posting seems to sum up the present state of play in the government controlled bits of the education system quite well and what the Conservatives have in mind to try to improve matters.

I am starting to think that there are two huge principles that need to be accepted if Britain’s inexorable ... call it disappointment ... is to be replaced by something more optimistic.

First, parent power has got to be re-established, for all parents and not just for reasonably good parents with lashings of money.  Something like education vouchers will be needed.  My preferred version of education vouchers is the best sort of vouchers there are, namely: money.  But, I quite understand that that’s a political non-starter for the time being.  Not that this will stop me trying to find out as much as I can about genuinely free market and voluntary enterprises along the lines of Kings Cross Supplementary, if only as a means of spreading the idea that this will eventually be the best way to do things.

What won’t work is merely tinkering around with the powers of the government.  For instance, it may be a short term improvement to shut down a bad old government school and build some new government schools, and to sack the previous managers (the local authority) and replace them with new management (a “private sector” education provider).  But sacking civil servants or local bureaucrats and replacing them with government contractors makes no fundamental difference, and government contractors have a horrible way of degenerating into corrupt parodies of government departments.

So, there must be parental power.  And that means parental choice.  Parents must be allowed to choose schools, and unchoose them if they don’t like them.  A market will be no use if the government merely becomes the sole customer in the market.  The parents must be the customers.  Their vouchers must be theirs to spend on whatever they like.

But something else is needed, which is an explicit rejection of egalitarianism.  If vouchers are introduced, good parents will make good use of them, quickly.  But what of bad parents?  What about the bad children of bad parents, unchosen by the schools of their first choice, as must be allowed.  To start with, they won’t know what to do with their choices, and other people’s choices will hurt them.  They’ll have to learn, which may take time, as will the process of expanding the supply of education to the point where formerly bad parents start to see some point in learning about the new opportunities they now have.  While this is all going on, educational inequality will surely increase, because the big immediate change will be that the bad education now forced upon good families will quite quickly get better.  Won’t it?  Are the politicians ready to grit their teeth and tough it out, while bad parents slowly work out that it might be worth them becoming good parents again, now that good choices are slowly starting to come on stream for them?

To put it another way, progress always bring inequality, because as soon as the entire caravan starts to move, it spreads out across the desert.

Speaking personally, and to repeat a point I have surely made here before, whenever I do any teaching, I am a total disbeliever in educational equality.  I actively disbelieve in either equal educational provision or equal educational outcomes.  I want the kid I’m teaching to get massively better than average teaching, and to do massively better with his life as a result.  I want my pupil to be obscenely privileged.  Whether he is obscenely privileged when I teach him is another matter.  But that’s what I’m aiming for.

Sunday April 06 2008

Yes, says the local paper:

Cricket, which its fans say is the world’s second most popular sport, is played by millions of people around the globe. But it is pursued seriously by probably fewer than 1,000 people in New York City, where the game is played in relative obscurity, its matches confined to the corners of the city.

Yet New York has long been among the centers of cricketing in the nation, holding the national championships as recently as 2006.

On Wednesday, the Department of Education inaugurated cricket as its newest league sport, with about 600 high school students playing on 14 teams during a 12-game season. The first matches, held in Queens, featured teams fro John Adams, Richmond Hill, Aviation and Newcomers High Schools.


The Department of Education said New York is the only public school system in the nation to offer competitive cricket.

That’s not so amazing.  I’m guessing it’s all those Indians, and West Indians, and Pakistanis, especially the Indians.  New York, city of immigrants, and immigrant games.

But, the New York Times article says that cricket never caught on in the USA.  No so.

Saturday April 05 2008

Yes, Frank Chalk offers a different perspective on the row about military recruiters in schools:

If you are born into the Underclass, doomed to attend a dustbin of a school, then a career in the Army might well be your only ticket out of the slums. Yes, if you are unlucky you might be shot by some toerag in Iraq or Afghanistan; but if you manage to avoid that unfortunate outcome, then you can pick up a decent pension after 22 years or look for another employer who will snap you up, knowing that unlike most applicants; a) you will actually turn up to work and b) you will get on with things that you might not want to do without moaning too much.

Alternatively you could of course just remain in the Estate from Hell, where there are no employers and you stand a good chance of being shot by a rival drugs dealer or ending up behind bars for most of your life.  The NUT would like to remove your only hope of escape.

Well, not quite.  You still can join the army, even if your teachers don’t want you to think about it.  Teachers not wanting you to think about it might even encourage you.  I’m about a fortnight late with this posting.  But, this is not an argument that changes very much from one century to the next, so I’m going to forgive myself for that.

Friday April 04 2008

Snuffy, in a comment on this, re something or other said by somebody or other:

Notice how you blame the teacher (when there are in fact 3 teachers involved here) for the disruption and say she should learn to control her classes. It is this type of mentality that is the root cause of the problem in the first place. Change it. Or you will be part of the problem.

Which would be Snuffy’s answer to this guy, I bet you.

Read the posting too.  It’s a classic case, yet again, of perverse incentives, this time in the form of clever but disobedient boys, ruining things for a less clever but more obedient and motivated girl, but the boys are kept in the class instead of slung out because they just might come up with some good exam results.  And make the teacher look better than if she merely got on with teaching something to a less clever kid, who merely wanted to learn something.

Badly behaved white boys, by the way.  I don’t agree with Snuffy about everything, but there is no better teacher blogger out there that I personally know of, if you want to understand what happens in state schools in disadvantageous places, and what it feels like to work in such a place.

Thursday April 03 2008

imageIn the course of reviewing Who’s Your City? How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life by Richard Florida, which is about what makes cities successful, Steven Malanga has this to say about what Florida has to say about education:

Now that Florida has discovered how important a school system is to his target audience, in Who’s Your City he must now give his two-and-a-half page riff on what’s wrong with public education in America. His assessment boils down to this: we’re still teaching kids as though we were in the industrial age, trying to force them into rote learning instead of unleashing their creativity and allowing them to learn flexibly. Florida doesn’t seem to know that one reason so much public education has gone off the rails in the United States is that curricula developed in our education schools starting in the 1960s and 1970s tried to do exactly what he proposes - make learning a more inner-centered, “natural,” and creative process, while ignoring the basics. Today, for instance, kids are taught to read through “whole language” courses that dispense with what educators deride as the “drill and kill” of learning phonics in favor of classroom interactions with classmates and minimal teacher guidance. Though we now have a mountain of scientific evidence showing that whole-language instruction doesn’t work nearly as well as phonics-based instruction, “the resistance from many educators to [teaching phonics] has been palpable,” according to the National Council on Teacher Quality. Educators cling to ineffective techniques precisely because many share Florida’s romantic, misguided notion that they must find ways to unleash students’ creativity. Indeed, when Florida praises foreign elementary-education systems over America’s, he seems unaware that most of them are far more traditional in their curricula, and far more standardized in their teaching (many countries require that the same curricula be taught in all of their schools), than America is.

I believe in unleashing students’ creativity by teaching them to read and write, which works best if you use phonics.  Illiteracy, I believe, leashes creativity.

imageSuddenly I am being emailed with news of interesting videos, and I’m very glad about this.

Here‘s the best video I’ve been emailed about so far.  It’s a talk by Cambridge Maths Professor Neil Turok about his African childhood, his research work at Cambridge, and about AIMS, the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences.  As you can see from all the categories this posting has at the bottom, he covers a lot of ground.  There could have been more.

Favourite Turok quote: “We want Africa to be rich.” Once again, there’s that enterpreneurship vibe.  I’m not stuffing that word into his mouth.  He used it.

Strongly recommended.  And, I would say, a perfect example of how valuable it is to make progress by doing the very best you can for your best students, and not just the best you can for regular students.  It’s also a first class example of seizing an opportunity instead of just moaning about problems.


Some professors threaten to confiscate students’ cell phones if they go off during class. Laurence Thomas has his own approach to classroom distractions. If the philosopher at Syracuse University catches a student sending text messages or reading a newspaper in class, he’ll end the class on the spot and walk out. It doesn’t matter if there is but one texter in a large lecture of hundreds of students. If you text, he will leave.

Last week someone did, and he did.  As you can imagine, there’s been quite a row going on about this.  Professor Thomas has explained himself at length, but many are annoyed.

For me, this is a matter of contract, or if it isn’t, it should be.  What was the deal?  Did Professor Thomas make it clear beforehand that this was his attitude, not just by saying it to his class, but when negotiating his job in the first place?  Did students who enrolled to be taught by him understand that if one of their number, over whom they surely had no control, texted in Professor Thomas’s class, then Professor Thomas would leave, and were they willing to take this chance?

A situation in which texters were threatened with expulsion, and if that didn’t stop them were duly expelled, but in which the class then continued, would make more sense.  Is that, for some reason impossible in this case, or at least annoyingly difficult?  If it is, then my sympathies, on balance, are with Professor Thomas.  Students are supposed to be adults, not unruly children.  If he can’t control who he lectures to and how they behave, he can at least control how he behaves.  He can stop lecturing.  If that’s the deal, then Professor Thomas leaving is a valuable lesson: deals can have unwelcome consequences.  And, deal or no deal, if you piss people off, they may not want to have anything further to do with you for a while, or maybe ever.

I daresay this guy would say that a decent professor ought to be able to hold the attention of his class without resorting to threats to leave, and from time to time actually leaving.  If Syracuse university agrees, and reckons that Professor Thomas’s lectures aren’t good enough to be worth all this rowing, they can sack him.  Unless the contract they have with Professor Thomas says otherwise.

Bishop Hill is not impressed with the new logo of the Department for Children, Schools and Families.  And I am not impressed by the absence of capital letters in the title of the “department” at the top of the ... dcsf? ... website:


Here are the dcsf’s declared purposes:

The purpose of the Department for Children, Schools and Families ...

So presumably the rest of us are supposed to talk about this gruesomely named enterprise with capitals, even if the department itself does not ...

… is to make England the best place in the world for children and young people to grow up. We want to:

- make children and young people happy and healthy

- keep them safe and sound

- give them a top class education

- help them stay on track.

This is a brisk, unashamed, approximately plain English exposition of what is wrong with modern government.  It all sounds so sensible.  ("[S]afe and sound”.) But it is ludicrously all-embracing, and turns parents and teachers into bewildered and demoralised underlings or worse, spectators - while the government tramples about like a mad elephant failing to do what it should not be attempting but has nevertheless put itself in charge of.  Only purpose four, which is vaguer than the others and is presumably concerned with stopping children turning into criminals, is central to what a government should be doing.  But it should be doing this by punishing children if and when they commit crimes, not by giving them “help”.

Wednesday April 02 2008

The Stockholm network have just produced a short video in favour of moving the British state education system towards greater freedom of choice for parents, towards, in other words, a system like what they have in Sweden.  This is what Conservative leader David Cameron has already said he will be favouring, so it’s helpful to have a partisan video in favour of such changes.  Here‘s the video.  Here‘s the Stockholm Network press release plugging it.

One of the prime movers behind the Civitas schools, Robert Whelan, is one of the talking heads in this video.  He talks very quietly and rather sadly, making the point that he personally wanted to go beyond just badgering the government into doing better, by helping to start some cheap and cheerful schools, within the range of the less wealthy.  That reminds me, I must ask Whelan if he’ll do a recorded conversation with me.


If I was cleverer I’d have the video “embedded”, or whatever it is, here.  But I have much to learn about such trickery and am also in somewhat of a hurry.

Personally I’m more impressed by incremental steps in what look to be the right directions, at any rate for the people doing them, than big policy leaps, even leaps intended to be leaps towards a free market.  Nationalisation is an incurably political process.  So, unfortunately, is denationalisation.  But good luck to these particular would-be reformers.  I hope they can make this kind of stuff stick.  And congratulations to Greg Carter, the guy who made this video.

I don’t know who Graham Jones Internet Psychlogist is, but Iain Dale seems to rate him, probably because he is taking a swipe at Ed Balls:

Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Education in the UK, wants “cyberbullying” of teachers to be a disciplinary offence. Apparently, school pupils sometimes ridicule their teachers in online chat rooms and on social networking sites. Well knock me down with a feather, there’s a shock.

Look, Mr Balls, children have always taken the mickey out of their teachers - and politicians. But there is a common theme. I remember my Latin teacher, Mr Beattie or “Bogroll” as we called him. He was a nice enough chap, but wholly unable to cope with 30 teenage boys. No doubt he knew his Latin well, but he couldn’t teach. We mercilessly took the rise.

Sure, it’s unfair; certainly it’s rude; and perhaps you could call it bullying. But it’s a fact of life for bad teachers. There’s the common link - pupils do not take the mickey out of good teachers. They like them and they would defend them against criticism. Poor teachers, on the other hand - like poor politicians - get ridiculed.

I may be jumping to conclusions, but I suspect this guy went to a basically good school with the occasional bad teacher, but that he has far less idea of what it is like in a less than good school.

I certainly agree that micromanaging the unwelcome symptoms of a system is not the way to improve it.  But my understanding is that teaching has got a whole lot more difficult in recent years.  People who couldn’t make the grade as Latin teachers in the kind of schools that teach Latin are indeed probably not cut out for such a job.  But damning all teachers who now have their lives made hell by those whom they are now trying to teach?  That’s not something I’d care to do.

Tuesday April 01 2008

I believe in a total free market in education.  One of the ways that people might pay for their education, in such a world, is to contract to work for a company that trained them, or if they switch, to compensate the company that trained them.  In practice, what this means is something a lot like transfer fees.  Could that model be generalised, beyond sport, I mean?

Today a row erupted, as they say, between continental Europe and England, concerning the top English soccer clubs’ habit of “buying” - whatever exactly that means (the continentals are calling it “stealing") - the best teenage soccer players, after they have been trained up by continental clubs.

This is not only a concern on the continent.  The fear in England is that teenagers of talent will be starved of opportunities at the top of the game, because of the influx of better foreign players.  (Why can’t our teenagers go abroad?  (Perhaps they aren’t sufficiently educated to make a go of it.))

It is certainly becoming widely assumed that the English Premier League now has the best players.  Watching Man U beat Roma tonight, in Rome, 0-2, on the telly, certainly made me think this.  I can remember when the best English players would be bought by Italian and Spanish clubs, and when English clubs had to do very well in Europe to do well.  Now, English clubs (unlike the now rather feeble England team) are an increasing force in Europe.

But, is there some kind of EU restriction on transfer fees?  I know little of soccer, and even less of how soccer is governed and of how soccer players are paid, beyond the obvious: they’re paid a lot.  But my vague impression is that transfer fees, from club to club, used to be a big deal, but now are not.  In other words, players no longer have contracts with clubs that cost a lot to get out of.  They just have wages that are as good as they can get.  Why don’t they have contracts like they used to?  Guess: it’s now illegal.  Have I got that right?

If that’s true, it may be better for “player freedom”, but it surely reduces the incentive for clubs to train promising young players for the future.  Already good players for the game this Saturday, yes.  But a teenager who can do nothing next Saturday, or even this year, no.  Their incentive becomes instead to “use up” players, so to speak, and then when they’re used up, fire them.  I don’t say they all do this.  For one thing, a club has its reputation to think of.  It wants to keep on hiring good players.  But the incentives are more in that direction than they used to be.

After all, the logical response of continental clubs who have their best young players “stolen” from them is: not to bother to train young players in the first place.

So, I’m guessing that this row has lessons for someone like me, who believes in a total educational free market.  But what are those lessons?  Is it that total free markets in education are dodgy?  I want to believe: no.  I want to believe that the lesson is: less government intervention.  I want to think: allow contracts, that then have to bought out, which will reward educators.  But then, I would, wouldn’t I?

imageDecisions decisions:

It is now the time of year when the next generation of economists is deciding where to attend graduate school. Those with the best undergraduate records will typically choose either Harvard and MIT.

And?  Or surely.  Oh well.  But how to choose, between Harvard and MIT?  (I’m guessing there was originally a between in there.) Read, as we bloggers say, the whole thing.  It’s not that long, and his first point is: relax, both are very good.

It’s interesting how geographical proximity looms so large in an educational decision of this sort, the point being that there is still no better way to learn from a professor (of from anyone) than to work alongside the guy and watch his every move, day after day.  (Hence my inclusion of distance learning in the category list for this posting.  Equal and opposite point: distance learning has severe limitations.  Further point: you still have to read the guy’s stuff.)

One of the key reasons why these two places are both so attractive to grad students of economics is that not only is each economics faculty very good, but that it is very near to another very good economics faculty, namely the other one.  Harvard and MIT are only two miles apart.