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Monday June 30 2008


Pupils are being rewarded for writing obscenities in their GCSE English examinations even when it has nothing to do with the question.

One pupil who wrote “f*** off” was given marks for accurate spelling and conveying a meaning successfully.

Key question: how much have they been rewarded.  Well, I would say that 11 percent just for “Fuck off!”, with 3.5 percent extra for the exclamation mark is somewhat excessive.  On the other hand, “off” is a word that frequently gets spelled wrongly, as “of”.  But, on the whole, I don’t favour swearing.

Other examining bodies said that their marking schemes would not reward such language. Edexel said: “If the question was ‘Use a piece of Anglo-Saxon English’, they may get a mark, but if they had just written ‘f*** off’, they may get sanctioned. If it was graphic or violent they may get no mark for that paper.”

Opposition spokesman Nick Gibb said:

“This is fucking ridiculous.”

No.  What he really said was:

“It’s taking the desire for uniformity and consistency to absurd lengths.”

Says Coffee House: You couldn’t make it up, and in order to demonstrate that things ain’t what, correction: are not as, they used to be, also links to this.  Charles Pooter gets all post-modern about it.

Sunday June 29 2008

I’m too busy socialising today to write anything much here today, but I just read this, by the excellent Paul Graham, and I suggest you might like to read it also.  It’s about how you learn to like what you truly like, as opposed to what you merely find impressive.  Education means developing your tastes, as well as just your skills.  It makes your life more fun, as well as more productive.  It doesn’t just make you more expensive, it makes your pleasures cheaper.

Saturday June 28 2008

The Civitas blog has a posting up, by James Gubb, about Frank Furedi’s publication entitled Licensed to Hug.  Gubb’s posting is sympathic to the points Furedi is making, which is encouraging to me, because I am just the kind of unmarried, childless, rather eccentric and wrong-side-of-middle-aged man who is liable to be put off teaching, or any other kind of helping or working with children, by the fear of being thought, or worse, the fear of being accused of being - a paedophile.  I have now undergone the police checking routine twice.  Fair enough, those are the rules and these are the times we live in.  Postings like Gubb’s suggest that Civitas appreciates having a man like me helping out at their schools, and all the more so because of this scarily unhealthy climate of suspicion that Furedi describes and denounces.

It’s a huge subject, and a difficult one to write about, but one thought does occur to me about why I like working for the two Civitas schools I do work for.  (Actually, I have stopped working at Hammersmith Saturday, but that wasn’t because I didn’t like it.  It was merely that I was surplus to requirements.  I was told they had problems, which was true, they did.  But these problems had actually been solved by the time I showed up there.  Hopefully I will soon be helping out somewhere else.)

So anyway, the thought that occurs to me is this: that both the Civitas schools I’ve been teaching at consist of one quite big space, with several teaching operations going on in different parts of the same space.  This actually has a big bearing on this sensitive issue of sexual misconduct, and, more precisely, of the fear of being accused of it.

My previous attempt to help at a school didn’t involve me teaching in a big space, along with other teachers and pupils.  I was on my own, that is to say I was on my own with the one kid, not in a little room, thank goodness, but out in the open area between the classrooms.  So far as I know, nobody ever suspected me – certainly nobody ever accused me - of anything untoward or inappropriate.  But it did occur to me that if a child took against me and accused me of something wicked, it would be my word against his.  (It usually was his, at that school, rather than hers.  That’s because my job was to take troublesome boys for one-to-one teaching, out of classes that they might otherwise disrupt or otherwise be a bit of a problem in.) That was a slightly scary thought.  It wasn’t likely to happen, but if it did ...  What if I had then got caught up in some quasi-legal mincing machine which assumed all such accusations to be true unless proved otherwise?  Not good.

At the Civitas schools, on the other hand, in the event of such unpleasantness, it would not be only my word against a child’s, and any child tempted by the thought of such wickedness would know that.  For that reason alone, a child almost certainly wouldn’t try such a thing.  If a child did try it, the enormity of making such an accusation would quickly be explained, and that would be the end of it, for if a child did make such an accusation, there would be plenty of witnesses to say that I did no such thing, it was all a misunderstanding, he didn’t mean that, etc. etc.

Not only that, but if the personal code of conduct, as it were, that I follow (about such things as bodily contact, shaking hands at the end, and so forth) were to be observed by any of my colleagues, and considered by them to be unwise or open to misunderstanding, then they could straighten me out before any trouble ensued.

Nothing remotely like any of this has happened.  But in this matter as in so many others, I am extremely glad that these other teachers get the chance to keep an eye on me and to watch me in action, in among and as a natural consequence of the way the place works rather than in some kind of self-conscious inspection process.  In general, if I’m not doing what they want, they can say so.  In general, in an open space, they can get to know me, my character, demeanour, general approach, strengths and weaknesses as a teacher, and so on.  In the event of needing to reassure somebody about my good character, they’d be comfortable about doing that, because presumably that’s what they have good reason to think that I have.

Likewise, I learn a lot about teaching, and about the proper behaviour of a teacher, from being able to watch them in action.

Working out in the open like this really is a huge improvement on being on my own, the whole Licensed to Hug thing being only one of them, but a significant one, I think. 

Friday June 27 2008

Terence Kealey thinks there’s no problem with University exams, no grade inflation.  But here are a couple of recent pieces ...

I’ve been told that if I didn’t give out more firsts to my students then it would reflect badly on me and my teaching, with the unspoken threat of my visiting lecturer contract not being renewed, even though all my observations and assessments by peers and managers have been excellent.

image… that say otherwise.

Prof Geoffrey Alderman, who used to be in charge of safeguarding standards at Britain’s largest university, the University of London, blamed grade inflation on “a league table culture”.

He told The Independent newspaper that lecturers were under pressure to “mark positively” to secure a good position in the tables.

“The more firsts and upper seconds a university awards, the higher a ranking is likely to be,” he said.

“So each university looks closely at the grading criteria used by its league table rivals and - if they are found to be using more lenient grading schemes - the argument is put about that ‘peer’ institutions must do the same.”

This later bit strikes a particularly ominous note:

He said universities were particularly “generous” when they marked non-European Union students, who pay far more in fees.

Both are in the Guardian, with the second quoting something said to the Independent.  It seems that in this argument the free marketeers are defending the status quo, and the lefties are attacking it.  Kealey was responding to all this stuff.

Go here, and you learn about a podcast interview with Professor Alderman, and find a link to Alderman’s own website.

And look what it says there:

In June 2007 Geoffrey joined the University of Buckingham as Michael Gross Professor of Politics & Contemporary History.

So he’s at the very same university that Terence Kealey is the Vice Chancellor of.  Hah!  Alderman doesn’t sound like any kind of lefty.  He favours complete autonomy of universities of the sort they have in the USA, just as Kealey does.  But, he also favours good and honest external examiners.  At present, he says, we have neither.

A complicated argument, pulsating with ironies of all kinds.  But it’s clear who the politicians are inclined to believe.

I can’t find the Independent front page article about what Alderman said which he refers to in that podcast.  It happened while I was abroad, I think.  Link to that, anyone?

Thursday June 26 2008

Well I’m right to be taking my Swedish Lessons seriously, because this evening it was all over the news that David Cameron is going to introduce school choice like they have in Sweden.

Fraser Nelson has already been writing about this in the Spectator, on page 3 of this:

Michael Gove’s school reform policy would be at one and the same time the most politically exciting and (in terms of bureaucratic activity) least demanding act of a Cameron government. It simply promises to grant funding of the national average - by then about £6,000 per pupil - to any new schools that are set up. When enacted in Sweden, the reform was so successful after just four years that it was irreversible. The same prize awaits Mr Cameron.

Nelson says that the only problem will be cracking ahead quickly with the necessary legislation.  I haven’t finished trying to make sense of Cowen’s piece, but already I think I can see all kinds of potential problems with this policy.

Here’s an interesting twist on a familiar argument.  This is Terence Kealey writing in yesterday’s Telegraph:

The degree system in British universities is “rotten”, with grades based on “arbitrary and unreliable” measures, says Peter Williams, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), the government-sponsored body responsible for maintaining university standards. Not since Gerald Ratner announced that his products were “crap” has a chief executive made such a suicidal remark. In this case it is not true.

Williams’s major complaint is that whereas, 10 years ago, only 45 per cent of students got firsts or upper seconds, now some 60 per cent do. This, he says, reflects grade inflation.

So far so predictable.  Grade inflation.  But of course.

But here comes the surprise:

Actually, because our admissions procedures tend to work well (i.e., we tend to admit only students with appropriate A-levels) 100 per cent of students should be getting firsts or upper seconds. The only students to get lower seconds and thirds should be those who succumb to laziness, drunkenness and the other ills that student flesh is heir to. Since no one reviewing our universities can doubt that the students are more serious than ever, no one need be surprised that their degrees are getting better.

Because the league tables reward universities for awarding firsts and upper seconds, there is, admittedly, pressure to inflate the top grades, but my experience of the examination system in Britain is that underhand practices are uncommon. I hate to sound like a minister or Dr Pangloss, but students are getting better grades because they are working harder. We should be pleased.

So what does Kealey think Williams is up to?  Here’s his answer:

Williams is being political.  The QAA is power-hungry and resents the autonomy our universities have retained in this target-driven world.  He wants more bureaucracy and he wants his QAA to supply it.

The QAA is already too intrusive.  The best universities are in America, yet American higher education bureaucracy is trivial.  There are no external examiners at American universities, for example, and the US equivalents of the QAA are pussy cats – which is why American unversities flourish.

The QAA and other bureaucracies damage higher education because universities flourish only by self-regulation.  Universities do best when they are independent, because scholars are innately self-critical, so only when external agencies displace self-criticism with arbitrary ticks in boxes do standards slip.

It’s the QAA, not our degree classification, that is arbitrary and unreliable.

So there.



In the spirit of spreading the word and looking for constructive feedback, I’d appreciate you taking a quick look at our new baby, Beanbag.

A bit about us: we are what’s politely called ‘seasoned professionals’, we’re all parents and we’re based in Bristol, so we’re well used to the debates about standards in education. We put together Beanbag because, as parents, we wanted as much as possible for our kids, not just state vs private. I suppose you could say that we believe that old chestnut: if it takes a village to raise a child, then it takes a whole community to educate one. Beanbag is very much a grassroots project - it’s free of charge to use so we don’t spend on advertising. Anything you can say about us will help. Any questions, feel free to mail me or call 07725 471429.

Kevin Gibson
Beanbag Learning

I don’t now have the time to do much more for Beanbag than just copy and paste that email.  But I do like this, from the About Us section:

Our schools do all they can, but they can’t be all things to all children. There are literally thousands of really good teachers, tutors and education professionals that work outside of the school system. So we can’t understand why it’s harder to find them than it is to find a hire car in Romania.

I guess the good ones are too snowed under doing all the teaching they can manage to be bothering with advertising.

Wednesday June 25 2008

More on the computers-educational-or-mind-destroyers-or-what? front.  Linked to at Samizdata by Adriana, this:

Social networks like Facebook and MySpace have reputations as time-sucking procrastination tools, but a new study from the University of Minnesota says au contraire.

Social networks build beneficial technological, creative, and communication skills, the study says, leading the researchers to actually describe social networks with the adjective “educational.” Who knew?

“What we found was that students using social networking sites are actually practicing the kinds of 21st century skills we want them to develop to be successful today,” Christine Greenhow, a learning technologies researcher from the school’s College of Education and Human Development, said in a release Friday.

Data from the study came from teenagers ages 16 to 18 in about a dozen urban high schools in the Midwest.

“Students are developing a positive attitude towards using technology systems, editing and customizing content and thinking about online design and layout,” Greenhow continued. “They’re also sharing creative original work like poetry and film and practicing safe and responsible use of information and technology.”

Yes.  The main thing you learn from using computers is how to use computers, and that’s got to be worth learning.

The debate continues.

Tuesday June 24 2008

I just clocked this:

Walking along the road, half watching the oncoming traffic, as you do. Car, car, truck with “beer” written on it, car, car.  Daughter - “I hate beer” … long pause … me - “did you just read that?”, daughter - “yes” (like it’s no big deal). OK. I guess she’s started reading then.

That’s the entire posting.  But what a posting.

Monday June 23 2008

Here is further illustration of something I have always believed, that David Beckham is a smart guy.  Martin Samuel writes in The Times:

David Beckham, asked by The Times to sum up the strength of Fabio Capello, the England manager, came up with the perfect, pithy phrase. “He makes you sit up straight in class,” he said. For tutors, however, instilling discipline is only half of it. The pupils must wish to learn as well.

Education is a partnership. First, the teacher must be motivated to do the job properly. Sven-Göran Eriksson became lazy as head coach and England stagnated as a result. Steve McClaren wanted to coach new ideas, but lacked the authority to make his players listen. Neither of these flaws will affect Capello’s regime; but it is the second part of the equation that is the key. The teachers must teach, but the pupils must listen; and this is where English football has fallen down.

So there.

I have been busy elsewhere, also concerning sport, so that’s your lot here for today.

Sunday June 22 2008

As already reported in this earlier posting, I have been reading Nick Cowen’s Civitas pamphlet entitled Swedish Lessons.  It consists of three chapters, the first being about Sweden’s education reforms, the second about Britain’s current educational problems, and the third proposes British solutions.  The chunk that follows is from chapter two, about what’s going wrong with British education.  Things aren’t that bad, says Cowen.  But they’re getting rather worse, and here (pp. 48-52) is one of the reasons:

GCSEs and A-levels, the current official indicators of what makes a good school and what defines a successful pupil, are bad measures of how well pupils are doing.  Yet the government treats exam results as a proxy for school productivity, with the Department for Schools, Children and Families, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) placing primary emphasis on good exam results representing success and achievement. Under this regime the actual skills and abilities of pupils come to be disregarded.

This problem becomes more acute when the interests of pupils come to be directly at odds with the interests of the school as judged by the exam and assessment system.  The continual drive to improve results creates a damaging incentive for schools to find qualifications that are likely to produce good results with the least amount of effort and talent.  General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) taken at the same time as and often in lieu of GCSEs offers perhaps the most widely used ‘loophole’ used to drive up standards on paper while not actually tackling students educational outcomes.  Professor Smithers of the University of Buckingham’s Centre for Education and Employment Research found that thousands of students took courses in these ‘quasi-academic’ subjects, which include science, information and communication technology and business.  However, ‘entry to the more practically-sounding fields is miniscule.  Hospitality and catering, manufacturing, construction, retail and distributive trades, land and environment together account for only 1.2 per cent of the Intermediate GNVQ’. Indeed, over half of all the GNVQs taken are in the single subject, ICT.  Smithers has also noted that the influence these subjects have had on results is significant: ‘from 2001 the proportion achieving five good GCSEs themselves has plateaued at about 50 per cent and the increase [up to 2005] has been through intermediate GNVQs which count as four GCSEs’.  David Brown, a reitred head teacher, calculated that since GNVQs are valued so highly compared to GCSEs, studying the ICT GNVQ was 13 times as effective in boosting a school’s league table position as studying maths.

A-levels have suffered a similar commute to easier subjects that appear to offer improved results for schools.  From 1996 to 2007, the number of A-level entries has increased by nearly 100,000. However, this increase has not been reflected in traditional subjects.  In fact, many have declining numbers of entries: physics, French and German have all registered reductions of more than 4,000, 10,000 and 3,000 respectively.  By contrast, psychology has increased by 30,000; media & film studies by 16,000 and PE by nearly 12,000.

Officially, qualifications in all A-level subjects are worth exactly the same but, as Peter Tymms and Robert Coe of Durham University have demonstrated, some A-level subjects are less demanding than others: ‘It is perfectly clear from our research that two A-levels are not equal, with some more severely graded than others.’ Their research found that students with Bs in JSCSE history, economics, geography, English language and literature, sociology and business studies went on to attain C on average in the same subjects at A-level.  However, Coe and Tymms found that those with Bs in GCSE maths, computing, German, French, chemistry, physics and biology were more likely to get Ds at A-level.

The result is not just a case of students themselves choosing easier subjects.  There is evidence that some schools have been actively discouraging pupils from taking subjects that are deemed more challenging and are therefore less ‘safe’ for league table purposes.  An ICM survey commissioned by the Association of Colleges in 2006 showed that 55 per cent of students felt that teachers steer them towards courses in which their school does best, rather than what they needed.

It is hard to predict exactly what the long-term consequences of disregarding challenging subjects will be, but a number of experts have described their fears.  Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, has argued that schools are discouraging students from taking maths A-level.  He noted: ‘This contrasts starkly with countries like China, in which mathematics is seen as integral to the sciences and to the nation’s economy.’

David Hart, then general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, argued that ‘soft’ subjects may be helping students get into higher education but that ‘in the long term I’m not sure it does very much for their career prospects’.  Robert Kirby-Harris, chief executive of the Institute of Physics, has also argued that exams present a ‘crazy situation’ in which A-level students are opting for subjects which have ‘poor career prospects’.  In addition, Kathleen Tattersall, chair of the Institute of Education Assessors, has described how history, in particular, is becoming an endangered subject as more students opt for subjects such as media studies and photography.

The irony is that this focus on exam results and regulated assessment is meant to ensure high standards of teaching in all schools, but the flaws in the system have created incentives that act to undermine standards and to direct the efforts of both teachers and pupils in the wrong direction.  Of course, there are still very good teachers and some very good schools in the maintained sector, and there are many successful pupils.  However, the structures and incentives operating at the centre are working against those successful outcomes rather than for them.  It means, for example, that when a school begins to struggle, its first priority is not to concentrate on getting genuinely better outcomes for their pupils, but on creating better outcomes on paper, the ones that are acceptable to the central bureaucracy.

Hence, the very mechanism designed to assure some quality in every school has led, when implemented systematically, to a lower quality of education being generated in practice.

Saturday June 21 2008

That’s what it says here:

Celia Lashlie, an education adviser and author, said women should ‘step back and shut up’ in the classroom.

Instead of talking constantly, they should communicate with their pupils using non-verbal cues, such as a raised eyebrow. Female teachers should allow boys to be boys.

Miss Lashlie, who describes herself as a feminist, added that mothers should not try to run their sons’ lives.

‘I’ve been in classes with young female teachers and by the end of the session my ears hurt,’ she added. ‘Women need to step back and shut up.’

Nearly 90 per cent of primary school teachers are women, while at secondary level the figure is about 60 per cent.

Miss Lashlie, who comes from New Zealand, interviewed 180 classes in 25 boys’ schools in her home country for her research.

Her book, He’ll Be OK, is a bestseller in New Zealand and will be published in the UK next week.

The book argues that boys need male role models and Miss Lashlie suggested that schools should be ‘defeminised’ by employing more men.

I have for some time believed that being a male primary school teacher is OKAY.  A decade or two go, such men were, if not actual pedophiles, definitely rather peculiar, if only in being willing to be suspected of being pedophiles.  Now, you are brave, for ignoring all that nonsense.  But just because it’s now okay to be a male teacher of small children, that’s no reason to starting putting the knife into lady teachers.

Certainly, none of the above complaints apply to any of the lady teachers whom I am now getting to know.

I also think that teachers talking a lot can often work rather well.  I find that one of the simplest ways of cheering up a baffled or confused child is to just tell them, again, what you’re trying to tell them, and say: don’t worry if you don’t get it now, you will soon, thanks for listening.  Making him explain everything can sometimes, on the other hand, be excessively pressurising.

Friday June 20 2008

imageSchools Secretary Ed Balls lashes out at Grammar Schools, and Guido Fawkes lashes out at Ed Balls, and his wife, and some people called Winterton.

Professor Michael Reiss writes:

The Ofsted report on science in schools (report, June 17) raises a fundamental question. What happens to young children who start out their school days fascinated by nature, space, dinosaurs and robots? Why are so many of them disillusioned with school science by the time they reach the age of 16?

Teachers are the key to successful education, and specialist knowledge of their subject is the key to inspiring their pupils. However, more students in secondary schools are being taught physics by non-specialist teachers than five years ago and only 2.3 per cent of primary teachers on PGCE courses have studied science, mathematics, technology or engineering to degree level.

Attracting and retaining specialist teachers and ensuring that teachers at all levels can access ongoing professional development in science must be a priority.

Ah yes, a priority.  Presumably what the Professor has in mind is paying more and more money to qualified scientists to persuade them to teach, to keep up with the more and more money that qualified scientists can now get doing other jobs.  But what if the money is duly paid, but the inspired teaching fails to materialise?

To repeat a regular meme here, I suspect that if science teaching ever does revive it will do so as a branch of show business, with vast throngs of people being educated and entertained by a relatively small number of roving millionaire science teacher geniuses, whose DVDs sell by the lorry load to ambitious parents, and even to some children.

I hated school science, and it was the very things that you might think would liven it up, namely “practical” stuff, mucking about with bunsen burners and ancient electrical gadgets, that made it such an ordeal.  I never quite understood what was going on, was never on top of it, and it never seemed at all practical.

Thursday June 19 2008

Before going off on holiday last week, on Tuesday 10th of this month, I went to an event at what used to be called the London School of Printing, but which is now called this:


Website here.  Click on that photo to see at bit more of what sort of building this is.

This was the end-of-year show of photos put on by Goddaughter 1 and all her mates doing the ABC Diploma in Photography.  It was a crowded show, packed with friends and relatives like me.  All the photos looked great to me.  I couldn’t find a single duff set among them.  They all know how to do photography, I can confidently report.  Which is scary if you want just one of the photographers on show to do really well.


What struck me particularly was how many non-Brits were involved in this event, as students and as supporters of the students.  Particularly Asians, and particularly Asian women.  Higher education in Britain is no longer something laid on merely for Brits.  It is a huge British export industry.  Young friends tell me that this is because foreigners have to pay more, so foreigners are preferred.


That’s Goddaugher 1 and her set of photos, which seemed to be attracting quite a bit of attention, and which I thought were very well displayed.  She showed a couple of good big ones, several smaller ones that you could take out of their racks and scrutinise, and a portfolio containing lots of other equally good photos.  Just like me, Goddaughter 1 likes to photo photographers.  That’s her in the green top, anxiously awaiting the verdict of the European Photo Editor for Time MagazIne.  Or maybe not.  Let’s hope it was someone of significance.

I hope to learn more about this course, but from what little I’ve learned of it so far, it was pretty good.  In particular, it is practical, with classes not just about how to do the work, but about how to get it in the first place.

Wednesday June 18 2008

I’ve been sent a copy of Nick Cowen’s Civitas publication entitled Swedish Lessons.  The subtitle is: How schools with more freedom can deliver better education, which tells you roughly what it’s about.  I’ve only read the intro so far, but someone called Unity has read all of it, and is full of praise:

It really is very difficult to do the pamphlet full justice without writing a response of similar length and breadth, so perhaps the best I can say for now is that, regardless of your preferred political ‘direction’, if you’re into thinking seriously about the future of education policy in England and entertaining new ideas and new possibilities then I would recommend that disregard what the newspapers have had to say about it today and invest in a copy of ‘Swedish Lessons’.

As a primer for serious debate, it really is one of the best and more thought-provoking pieces of work you’ll read in a very long time.

J. S. Mill is often cited as a liberal, who nevertheless believed in nationalised education.  But as this quote shows, he believed in nationalised financing of education, but not nationalised supply:

If the government would make up its mind to require for every child a good education, it might save itself the trouble of providing one.  It might leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased, and content itself with helping to pay the school fees of the poorer classes of children, and defraying the entire school expenses of those who have no one else to pay for them.

That quote appears above Anastasia de Waal’s introduction to this pamphlet.

The case against such an arrangement was put here well by the last three commenters on this posting.  “De facto nationalisation”.  “It’s money coming from the government and it’s bound to have strings.  At first there won’t be that many but then ...” In other words, the Swedish/J. S. Mill distinction is not really much of a distinction, The fact that the private sector will get engulfed in the new arrangements will turn out in the longer run to be far more important than an improvement at the bottom end of the state sector in the short run.  I find such arguments depressingly persuasive.

Will Nick Cowen supply answers to such doubts?  I look forward to finding out.

Saturday June 14 2008

Undoubtedly the best educational snippet I have picked up on while in France, so far, is this video, of the teachers at the Sainte Therese Lycée in Quimper, miming away on YouTube to an ancient pop song.  This was done only days ago, and has already got huge publicity all over La France.  The media studies teacher put it together, apparently.

So, guess where I’m staying.  Quimper.  And guess where the daughter of my hosts (and my second goddaughter) goes to school.  Sainte Therese Lycée.  How cool is that? - as the boys at Kings Cross Supplementary would say.

Friday June 13 2008

Well, here I am in France, but still able to post, albeit with an AZERTY keyboard, rather than a QWERTY keyboard of the kind that nature intended.  While on the subject of computers, here is Ray Fisman writing about why giving poor kids computers doesn’t improve their scholastic performance.  Computers depend on parents making kids use them for educational self-improvement, he says, rather than as mere games consoles.  Which are bad.

What I want to know is: what effect do computers and computer games playing have on your ability to do real life, rather than just your ability or willingness to be “scholastic”?

Thursday June 12 2008

I am off to France for a long weekend, and posting here while I’m there may not be possible.  I may put stuff up here while in France, perhaps about French education, but then again I may not.

Wednesday June 11 2008

Ben Goldacre, writes about this (which I already reported here):

An early factual claim in Reform’s document is simple: “about 40% of mathematics graduates enter financial services”. This - we are invited to agree - is a good thing. The report’s reference for 40% is a simple link to prospects.ac.uk, which isn’t very informative as it’s rather a large website. Chasing through the pages there, you will find “What Do Graduates Do?”, and then the maths page. There were 4070 maths graduates in their sampling frame of 2006. Only 2010 of those, however, are in UK employment (1.5% are working abroad, and the rest are studying for a higher degree, or a teaching qualification, or unemployed, or unavailable for employment, and so on).

Of those 2010 - not 4070 - 37.9% are indeed working as “Business and Financial Professionals and Associate Professionals”. So correct me if I’m wrong – I’m always eager for that to happen – but by my maths 2010 x 0.379 = 761.79, and that divided by 4070 = 0.1871, but let’s round up like the angry maths profs did and say that about 20% of maths graduates enter financial services. Not 40%. I call this “arithmetic”. For a bunch of people complaining about the substitution of woolly modern notions like “relevance” and “applied maths” in place of high end mathematical techniques, they don’t make a particularly good advert for their own skill set.

I’ve added the link in that.

After criticising what he believes to be other arithmetical errors, and errors of other kinds, in the report, Goldacre ends by saying:

I’m happy to agree that maths is economically useful, that maths exams are dumbing down, that people avoid difficult school subjects, and that humanities graduates who think maths is uncool are bores. What I would like is someone who can be bothered to sit down and reinforce my prejudices without perpetrating crass errors of overinterpretation and getting the basic arithmetic wrong. I’ve never fully seen the point of them, but I suspect that’s what thinktanks are there for. Again, I may be wrong.

No, I think that’s about right.  Think tanks exist to supply facts to support your preferred prejudices. They translate reasonable opinions, held for other reasons to do with your overall worldview, into pseudo-deductions from only the facts of the particular matter being dealt with.  The more honest ones are also honest about their prejudices, and don’t only do this.  The seriously bullshit ones do nothing else.  (See this, by me.)

Tuesday June 10 2008

Fraser Nelson links to this Telegraph story, about Lord Adonis’s latest pronouncements about rearranging schools, this time to make them bigger, teaching all the way through from 5 to 18.  Making people who don’t want to do that sounds like a really bad idea, and I agree with Nelson.  Let the parents decide.

However, this story strikes me as rather more interesting:

More parents are taking out loans to pay for independent school fees as the credit this crisis starts to bite, according to a report.

As many as 18,000 parents took out personal loans last year as fees increased to a record high, it is revealed.

The average loan was for £9,065, with experts claiming that applications will rise in coming years as parents struggle with rising energy, fuel and food bills.

The conclusions - in a study by Sainsbury’s Finance - come amid growing concerns over year-on-year fee increases.

Last month, Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector of schools, said that some parents were being ripped off as schools spent money on “five-star facilities” with little education benefit.

But schools insist that increases are due to staffing costs, with class sizes in the independent sector considerably smaller than state schools.

That some of these parents will learn an unwelcome lesson of their own, about the dangers of getting into debt, I have no doubt.  What would be the educational equivalent of negative equity?  A qualification which seems valuable at the time, but which later turns out to be useless, I suppose.  Let’s hope they’ve done the maths.

Monday June 09 2008


London: Britain is all set to get its first fully state-funded Hindu school by September 2009.

The Krishna Avanti Primary School in Harrow in north-west London, will have Scripture Reading, Vedic Math, Sanskrit and Yoga as part of its curriculum.

On Saturday, a traditional bhumi pujan ceremony was held before starting the construction of the £13.5-million project.

“This gives Hindu parents a choice. Parents from other religions have a choice so it’s fair that the Hindu parents, too, have an option,” says Nitish Gor of I-Foundation, a Hindu charity closely associated with the Hare Krishna Movement, which will run the school.

It’s the “fully state-funded” bit that I object to.  If these Hindus were paying for their own school, I’d have no objection.  But should the British state be paying for this kind of thing?  The report linked to and quoted above notes that some British teachers unions object to such schemes on the grounds that they divide communities.  I wonder.  I suppose much depends on what exactly they teach about the other bits of the community.

Also, what on earth is “Vedic Math”?

Sunday June 08 2008

Nothing from me today here, but there’s a recent posting by me at CNE Competition, which makes use of my Kings Cross Supplementary and Hammersmith Saturday experiences.

Saturday June 07 2008



In America we are currently living in a Kindergarchy, under rule by children. People who are raising, or have recently raised, or have even been around children a fair amount in recent years will, I think, immediately sense what I have in mind. Children have gone from background to foreground figures in domestic life, with more and more attention centered on them, their upbringing, their small accomplishments, their right relationship with parents and grandparents. For the past 30 years at least, we have been lavishing vast expense and anxiety on our children in ways that are unprecedented in American and in perhaps any other national life. Such has been the weight of all this concern about children that it has exercised a subtle but pervasive tyranny of its own. This is what I call Kindergarchy: dreary, boring, sadly misguided Kindergarchy.


Well, in the words of Vladimir Illych Lenin, who had no children, what is to be done? Not very much, I suspect. When such seismic shifts in the culture as that represented by the rise of Kindergarchy take hold, there isn’t much anyone can do but wait for things to work themselves out. My own hope is that the absurdity of current arrangements will in time be felt, and people will gradually realize the foolishness of continuing to lavish so much painstaking attention on their children. When that time comes, children will be allowed to relax, no longer under threat of suffocation by love from their parents, and grow up more on their own. Only then will parents once again be able to live their own lives, free to concentrate on their work, life’s adult pleasures, and those responsibilities that fall well outside the prison of the permanent kindergarten they have themselves erected and have been forced to live in as hostages.


Friday June 06 2008

I am genuinely puzzled by this posting, at the Civitas blog.  Anastasia de Waal says that the new IPPR proposals for shorter holidays don’t tackle the problem of home background disadvantage (among all those children with disadvantaged home backgrounds); they merely institutionalise it.  The idea is to have shorter holidays, so that disadvantaged kids, whose family life doesn’t reinforce learning but causes learning to dribble away, don’t forget what they’ve learned over the holidays.  Not, on the face of it, a daft idea.  My doubts about such plans concern why all schools should be organised to suit (and solve the problems of) the disadvantaged.  Would shorter holidays be right for advantaged children?  If not, then maybe advantaged children shouldn’t be subjected to them, only disadvantaged ones.

But Ms. de Waal makes a distinction I just don’t get.  Is talking more slowly and more carefully to a kid who is a bit slow on the uptake institutionalising his slowness?  Perhaps it is.  But in the meantime, it seems like a good thing to do.  How else can you tackle his slowness of mind?

… many policies within the current education system (breakfast and after school clubs in many cases, for example) treat difficult home-lives as given realities. Yet whilst disadvantage is indeed a reality which those working in education must seek to overcome today and tomorrow, for policymakers it ought to be a challenge to be tackled (through better employment records amongst school leavers, for example) not simply a problem incorporated into future planning.

This sounds to me like a variant of the fallacy of the root cause, which says that trying to solve a particular problem is bad, because it leaves the causes of that problem unmolested, and even encourages neglect of such molestation.  But what if the cause can’t easily be eliminated, or even seriously reduced?  What if the cause is something really, really intractable?  Like: home disadvantage.  But what if home disadvantage can be worked around?  What if good education can be done despite home disadvantage?

Maybe shorter holidays is a lousy way of dealing with home disadvantage.  I don’t know.  But if Ms. de Waal thinks that, and that there are better ways for educators to tackle home disadvantage, she should say that, rather than object to the whole idea of tackling problems.  Anyway, I suspect this is not really a disagreement about tackling versus institutionalising, but between different ways of tackling.

Thursday June 05 2008

Yesterday at mad housewife:

My son started surfing the net aged 2, on the Cartoon Network games site. He taught himself to read from reading the net, when his school class was still trying to memorise the alphabet. When he was still an earlyish reader, he learned everything from youtube, which is fantastic for those with less striking literary talents, like my daughter (I would say she is dyslexic, but she doesn’t like being “dys” anything), who finds out almost everything by searching google images first.

Their internet (in the UK) has been down due to storms for a few days, but today it came back up. I’ve never appreciated the internet so much! said D, listening to the latest pop songs and looking up the names of a couple of TV presenters to tell me about. Wow, I’ve got so much email! said Son, who has made a new “email friend” of one of his school chums.

It’s impossible to tell how the world will change when every child has access to a laptop with internet, but I’m absolutely sure it will be for the better. Kids turn into adults. It’s hard for most of us even to imagine how we’d be now, had we grown up with that kind of knowledge-power.

I don’t think I necessarily agree about this being an automatic good.  Knowledge is power and power can be used to do bad.  But, the world will change, I do agree about that.

A mad housewife commenter supplied this link.

From a piece entitled Sad children do better than happy ones in school:

However, Dr Schnall suggested that there was no need actively to enforce misery as part of the school curriculum.

Linked to from here.

At least there’s no suggestion that happiness should be enforced.

A central plank of present education policy is that school excellence can be measured.  But this has always been a dubious assumption and it is becoming more so.

Many parents have always helped with their children’s education, some a great deal.  I know mine did, as did my older brothers and older sister.  So, if someone measured the excellence of what the various schools I went to were doing when I was there, they might have missed the contribution made to my education by my family.  And now, with the inexorable rise of all kinds of out-of-hours clubs and top-up arrangements - like Kings Cross Supplementary and Hammersmith Saturday, the two Civitas enterprises where I help out - the process of measuring school excellence becomes even more complicated.

Suppose a regular school has a seriously bad maths teacher.  But suppose there is also a very fine Saturday maths school in the immediate vicinity, to which many of the pupils of the bad maths teacher go, to be rescued from utter maths confusion.  You can easily see how the incompetence of the regular teacher might be missed by the official testing regime.  He might not even realise himself what a crap teacher he really is.  Likewise his school might miss what was really going on.  After all, there are his kids, lots of them learning lots of maths, sailing through their exams.  Hurrah, he’s a great teacher.

The more supplementary privately-paid-for education there is, around the edges of the regular school timetable, the harder it will get for the schools or anybody else to work out how well they are really doing.

So, who should be deciding on school quality?  No prizes for guessing that I think it should be the parents.  At the end of last Tuesday night at Kings Cross Supplementary I had a quick chat with Small Boy’s Mother.  I asked: Am I teaching him anything?  I can’t tell. He is definitely learning things. But it could be you (Small Boy’s Mother is herself a teacher), or his regular school, and not me at all.  Oh yes, said Small Boy’s Mother, he is definitely learning things here.  It isn’t easy to get here, and I wouldn’t keep bringing him and keep paying if it wasn’t doing any good.

Small Boy’s Mother is my personal OFSTED inspector.  A better, less nerve-racking and more efficient version of the real thing, I think.

Wednesday June 04 2008

I am suffering from a mild variation of Blogger’s Block just now.  It’s not that things don’t occur to me that I might write about.  My problem is, so what?  Who will care?  What does it matter what I think, report, notice or discover?  Not a lot.  What will it matter in a few years time what I now say?  Even less.  What will it matter in thirty years what I now say?  Nothing.

This, I think, is one of the reasons why childless old men of less that supreme achievement turn away from life towards education, from stirring yet again the stew of their own thinking as it bubbles towards complete insignificance, towards stirring the thoughts of the young, whose notions, good or bad, wise or foolish, do and will for a while count for something.

If that’s right, then there is something about teaching which appeals to the old which is of no significance to the young.  Those who still can, do.  Those who now can’t, teach.  Something like that.  Which is one of the reasons I believe that there is a great pent-up desire to teach in the aging baby boom.  I don’t believe I’m the only one.

What stops the baby boom from teaching is – I guess - the fear of what it would actually be like, or worse, the knowledge of this.  Lacking the vigour and savagery needed to subdue a large room full of young people who would prefer to be otherwise engaged, and denied the sort of deference which in earlier and perhaps somewhat mythical times was the natural prerogative of the old, oldies prefer to stay away from teaching.  Our government puts out TV adverts about how wonderful the life of a teacher is, how responsive, polite and eager to learn the pupils are.  We oldies fear that these adverts are lies, or why would they be so desperate for teachers?

Although, Kings Cross Supplementary and Hammersmith Saturday are actually rather like these advertisements.  There is none of the expensive lab equipment, but the same smiling faces, friendly disposition and willingness – often eagerness - to learn.

That a lot of oldies may want to teach the young is no reason for the old to be forcing their teaching upon the young.  What if the old have nothing to teach?  What if the young are not interested?  Should the young be forced to pay attention?  I don’t think so.  But many parents think that their children should be made to pay attention, and if that’s the case, I hope I am right to think that they might as well be made to pay attention to me.  In return for this compulsion, I try my hardest to pay attention to them and make it into a conversation rather than just a monologue or worse, an ordeal.

If I were teaching a particular skill, such as bomb disposal or dancing or touch typing, and if all pupils present were there on a totally voluntary basis and eager to learn that particular skill (and assuming I was the kind of teacher who is good at teaching particular things, which I am mostly not), then I might be very bossy and demanding.  It would often be a monologue, and maybe, sometimes, even an ordeal.  But this is not the kind of teaching I am now doing.

Tuesday June 03 2008

This evening at Kings Cross Supplementary, I greeted Mrs Maths.  How are you?  Did you have a good holiday?  I’m knackered, she said.  Ah yes, holidays will do that, I said.  No, no, she said, the holiday was delightfully relaxing.  It’s what’s just happened at her school, she said.  OFSTED rang up today, to say that there will be an inspection at the school tomorrow.

This makes sense to me, and rather cruelly I said so to Mrs Maths.  Clearly OFSTED will get a better idea of how the school regularly functions if they don’t give the school weeks of warning that they will be arriving.  And second, surely it’s nicer for the school not to be bent out of shape for weeks, just for a few frantic hours.  (Of course, it might be better if they weren’t bent out of shape at all, and OFSTED went paddling at the seaside.  But that’s a different argument.)

The Telegraph reports:

GCSEs are “considerably” easier than tests sat 50 years ago as questions are simplified to make them more relevant to modern teenagers, it said.

Reform, an independent think tank, said the traditional emphasis on algebra, arithmetic and geometry has been dropped in favour of questions focusing on real-life situations. It added that pupils can now gain a good grade with fewer than half the marks needed in 1990.

Reform also claimed that the lack of rigour has led to fewer students studying maths at sixth-form and university - leaving the British economy vulnerable to competition from China and India.

So, it would seem that “real-life” situations are not relevant.  Oh dear.

Here‘s what Reform itself has to say about the report.  And here (.pdf) is the report itself.

I’m an individualist about stuff like this.  It may matter to the Prime Minister than Britain’s children are slipping down the international league tables, but an individual child isn’t going to be unemployable merely because he doesn’t have a PhD in maths.  Okay, less rich maybe, but will he starve?

Maybe the answer is much better teachers and much bigger classes.  In other words obscenely high salaries for the best maths teachers in the country.  That’s only going to happen in the private sector.  So I say, eliminate the teaching of maths altogether from state schools (according to the Reform report good progress is already being made along these lines), and tell the parents it’s up to them to buy it elsewhere.  Just kidding.

Or maybe I’m not kidding.  Seriously, maths as showbiz.  If you ran maths classes in huge conference centres, charged a fiver a head per class, packed them in, but wanted them to keep coming back time after time because the show was actually very good - the children liked it and their parents liked it - what would it consist of?

Monday June 02 2008

Celebrating is dangerous:

Students celebrating graduation have been told they can’t follow the tradition of throwing their hats in the air because someone may get hurt.

Anglia Ruskin University, which has campuses in Cambridge and Chelmsford, Essex, said the corner of the mortar board may hit someone as it falls.

So, how many people actually have been hurt during such celebrations?  The university says that such behaviour “can” cause injury.  But how often has it actually done so?  And when it has, frankly, so what?

Sunday June 01 2008

I am always on the lookout for evidence concerning the quality of British state education.  Has British state education got better in the last few decades, or worse, or has it just flatlined?  On the face of this, this article by Jenny McCartney puts a powerful case to the effect that it has got worse.

Oxford wants £1.25 billion. That is the target of the biggest fundraising drive in the university’s history, announced last week.

This sum would, the university said, enable it to “sustain and enhance” its reputation and provide “security in a world of uncertain state funding and growing global competition”.

It didn’t mention directly what is almost certainly one of its biggest ambitions: to use the loot to slip away from the ever-tightening squeeze of the Government.

Our Government, like some town hall functionary of limited comprehension but relentless ambition, has long regarded the clever clogs at Oxford with the deepest suspicion. It has rightly suspected that, with Oxford’s fabled reputation for independent thinking, the university might not be suitably subservient to the New Labour mania for centrally imposed targets.

It also realised that Oxford was internationally recognised as a centre of academic excellence, and that its intake could therefore be read as an objective judgment on the comparative merits of Britain’s state and independent schools. Since Oxford now admits roughly equal numbers of students from independent and state schools, the implicit judgment - that the much smaller independent sector punches far above its academic weight - could not be permitted to stand.

The point being that it used to be a significantly higher proportion than fifty percent.

In the early 1970s, roughly 70 per cent of Oxford admissions were from the state sector. The uncomfortable truth for the Government is not that Oxford admissions tutors have mysteriously grown more snobbish since the 1970s, but that the quality of state-provided education has dramatically declined.

I wonder.  As McCartney herself acknowledges, the size of the private sector has expanded.  She accounts for that expansion purely by saying that the quality of the alternative to the private sector - the state sector - has declined.  But what if the demand for private sector education has grown not because the state sector has got worse but simply because the number of people able to afford its fees has grown?  What if the number of Oxford-ready pupils it churns out has increased, simply because more have been ready to pay them?

I can imagine lots of people responding to the above question by insisting that state education has got worse, so all that McCartney says makes sense.  I agree that it makes sense, and personally I think it probably is true, to some extent.  But the point is, the reasons why you think that state education has got worse is not that Oxford now picks a higher proportion of its intake from the private sector than it used to.  State education has got worse, because, well, it has.

It may also be true that the government doesn’t like the way that Oxford now picks more of its intake from the private sector, because it fears that this will be interpreted as evidence of state sector decline.  It may even believe that it is evidence of such decline, and it may indeed want such evidence suppressed.  And Oxford might dislike that attempt at suppression and indeed want to buy its way out of it.  But the government might be wrong.