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Tuesday July 29 2008


Dear Brian,

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

This comment mentions making going to school non-compulsory.


Thanks Rob.

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

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

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

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

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

Monday July 28 2008

As I said, maybe the occasional thing:


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

Typical media coverage here.

Tuesday July 22 2008

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

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

Sunday July 20 2008

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

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

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

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

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

Friday July 18 2008

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

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

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

Thursday July 17 2008

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, at least the problem is not Scotland.

Wednesday July 16 2008

From the Times, yesterday:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johnathan Pearce wants the child labour laws relaxed:

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

Commenter Walter Boswell adds this:

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


Tuesday July 15 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday July 14 2008

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

But then he gets to the matter of Robert Mugabe.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He simply won’t have the credentials.

A degree in education.  How about that?

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

More Mugabe honorary degree complaint here.

Sunday July 13 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boston scientists reckon they know a bit more about autism:

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


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

Later in the report comes this rather chilling sentence.

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

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

Saturday July 12 2008

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

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

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

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

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

Friday July 11 2008

Online education is on the up, because of the price of gas:

“All across the country, community colleges and universities are getting requests for online programs specifically with students mentioning the price of gas,” says Ray Schroeder, director of the office of technology-enhanced learning at the University of Illinois at Springfield. “I just filled up the tank of my little Hyundai, and it was $50 for the first time ever—I think it really is affecting people.”

Some experts say that the rising interest in online programs could lead more colleges to expand their offerings, or experiment with “blended” courses that mix in-person and online meetings.

Via Greg Mankiw.

I reported on the Elonex mini-computer some time back.  It was cheap and ugly.  Now it’s a tad more expensive, but not ugly, so now much more child-friendly.


I have an Asus Eee PC, and I must admit that the keyboard is really too tiny to be ideal for me, even with my small hands.  But for truly tiny fingers, a machine like this is surely perfect.  This Elonex, being so much cheaper than the Eee PC, is accordingly very parent-friendly.

Thursday July 10 2008

Again very little to say today, so try something else that is packed with stuff.  A few days ago I got an email flagging up 100 Unbelievably Useful Reference Sites You’ve Never Heard Of, which says pretty much what it says on the tin, but sadly, in American rather than in English.

I also got an email recently urging me to get interested in this.  Here is a testimonial about it:

“Je vous envoie ce mail du Canada. Je suis arrivé il y a 3 jours dans la famille d’Andrew, mon corres. Ils sont tous trop sympas! Demain on va aux chutes du Niagara. Waou!”

Sounds good.

Wednesday July 09 2008

Nothing much to say here today.  I’d show you my sick note, if I had one.  So anyway, here are all the schools the cabinet went to, apart from one of them for some reason.  He also did Guardian journos, but that’s harder to find (here), so here it is:

Editor Alan Rusbridger (Cranleigh); political editor Patrick Wintour (Westminster); leader writer Madeleine Bunting (Queen Mary’s, Yorkshire); policy editor Jonathan Freedland (University College School); columnist Polly Toynbee (Badminton), sent the kids to Westminster; executive editor Ian Katz (University College School); security affairs editor Richard Norton Taylor (King’s School, Canterbury); arts editor-in-chief Clare Margetson (Marlborough College); literary editor Clare Armitstead (Bedales); public services editor David Brindle (Bablake); city editor Julia Finch (King’s High, Warwick).; environment editor John Vidal (St Bees); fashion editor Jess Cartner-Morley (City of London School for Girls); G3 editor Janine Gibson (Walthamstow Hall); northern editor Martin Wainwright (Shrewsbury); and industrial editor David Gow (St Peter’s, York), Seumas Milne (Winchester College), the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley - Rugby School and Cambridge University, columnist Zoe Williams (Godolphin and Latymer).

Ah yes, I needn’t have bothered.  I could have just said it was originally from here.  the Guardian kept deleting it, so Guido’s informant said, back in May.  I see that their arts editor-in-chief went to my old school, which didn’t do girls when I went there.  Shame.  I’d have liked that.

I remember a Winchester Milne.  A relative, perhaps?  Used to play against Marlborough at rackets.  Rather well.  Hell of a good game, that.

Tuesday July 08 2008

The Croydonian links to this, about a grovelling apology made to China by the Vice Chancellor of London Metropolitan University for confering a degree on the Dalai Lama.

Angered and offended by the move, Chinese students and Internet users at home and abroad called for a boycott the university, saying its conferment of honors on the Dalai Lama had hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.

Says the Croydonian:

Sensitive flowers, aren’t they?

My take is that this shows that they don’t really rate this particular university, which they call a London “school”.  If Oxford or Harvard gave a prize to the DL, would the Chinese government make this kind of fuss?

Monday July 07 2008

I have paid no attention to High School Musical, until now, when I realised that it would be worth linking to from here:

It’s the age of the audience you notice first, quickly followed by the punishing volume of noise the little blighters generate.

Disney’s High School Musical, first a low-budget TV movie and now a stage-show phenomenon, is a wholesome romantic comedy that tells the story of two teenagers in love in Albuquerque.

A British touring production has been doing boffo business around the regions since it opened in January, while this sister production has just opened in London for the summer holidays.

I was expecting an audience mostly of girls aged between ten and 14, and there were plenty of those around, but there were also hundreds of far younger children, from the age of four and up, many of them boys.

The only difference is that the chaps don’t tend to get dolled up in bright red cheerleaders’ costumes and wave pom-poms about like the girls.

“He loves it, he knows all the words of every song,” observed one doting mother of her tiny-tot son, and indeed he did: he happily belted his way through every number.

This venerable venue cannot have been the scene of so much audience-generated racket since the Beatles played here in the early Sixties.

I wouldn’t have a clue about how to go about proving such a proposition, but I can’t help feeling that the extraordinary enthusiasm for show-biz that seems to be sweeping the nation, but which I mean an apparent enthusiasm to be a celebrity-stroke-performer rather than just watch what celebrity-stroke-performers do their various things while getting on with real life, is somehow related to the shift away from such things as maths and science and engineering.  What will all these would-be performers end up doing?  They can’t all become performers.  Can they?

The thing is, shifts in popular culture often signal changes in the world which the more educated and official cultural commentators are unaware of, or prefer not to notice or think about.

One thought occurs to me, which is that show-biz is how the adults of the near future will keep children amused and out of mischief.  So maybe lots of these performers will become teachers, or child-minders.


One of the key figures in High School Musical seems to be the lady teacher, Ms. Darbus, who presides over everything, played in the London stage production by Leticia Dean (above), who used to be in Eastenders.  This is no out-of-touch old biddy.  This is someone you’d be glad to be.

And this, I think, is all part of the same story.

Graduation used to be a rite restricted to students leaving university, but these days schoolchildren are getting in on the fun - with American-style proms to mark the end of the exam season.

The stretch limousine pulls up and out steps a young couple: he, suave in a tuxedo; she, tanned and glamorous. They stop for a photograph then saunter past the doorman.

The scene might resemble a Hollywood film premiere but none of the guests is more than 16 and the event is a school leavers’ party in Canvey Island, Essex.

Good luck turning those girls into engineers.

Sunday July 06 2008

Here’s another of those it sounds good but please don’t make it compulsory for all schools ideas.  This time, it’s about children teaching other children lots of different languages.

Saturday July 05 2008

Last night I chanced upon a really interesting BBC4 TV documentary, fronted by Huw Edwards, on the subject of Sunday Schools. 

This blog liked it too:

It’s not just learning the words to Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam, says Huw Edwards. Early pioneers rocked the boat by teaching poorer children to read, and football clubs like Everton owe their existence to the religious classes.

Mention Sunday school today and many will think of an institution that feels fusty, cosy and quaint. Some might even feel outright hostility. But others remember kindness, rich storytelling and singing - happy memories of some of the best moments of childhood.

This remarkable movement, founded in 1774 with the first class held in a house in Gloucester, has had a deeply radical effect on British society. In the early days, it was seen as dangerous and subversive to give the tools of literacy to the lower orders. In Victorian times, Sunday schools helped shape future MPs, women teachers and a large number of the current Premiership football clubs.  And well into the 20th Century, Sunday school students parading at Whitsun could turn out in their thousands, bringing city centres to a standstill.

I daresay not all pupils will remember Sunday School quite as fondly as the talking heads reminiscing in this show all did.  But a convincing case was made that Sunday Schools, in their time, made quite an impact on the life of the nation, most of it beneficial.  The sheer kindness of these places came over very strongly, which meant a great deal to children who, especially in the early days of Sunday Schools, were typically working for pay and not much of it, for the other six days of the week.

For another response, go here.

UPDATE: It’s being shown again Sunday night (July 6) at 8pm.

Friday July 04 2008

imageThis is not spot on, but it is still worth harking back to:

Personally I have doubts about creaming off the best voluntary or commercial sector people and making them into politicians.  They risk migrating from the solution to the problem, I think.  The now admirable Ray Lewis may come to regret this move.

My fear was that Ray Lewis would try to do good things with his newly acquired political grandeur, and fail dismally, not that the political meat grinder would, within a month, start to devour him for earlier errors and indiscretions of the kind that regular life forgives and forgets, before he’d even got stuck in.  Nevertheless, that last sentence is quite good, don’t you think?

Thursday July 03 2008

Continuing with the first comment on this that I quoted the beginning of below, and continuing with the theme of higher education as a British export industry, the final paragraphs of what “illuminatus” says go like this:

The wider cult of the metric is of great concern to me and is also starting to creep into HE too. Stories published this week about degree inflation and pressure on academics to wave through international students whose grasp of English is so tenuous as to be pretty much non-existent are just small indicators that the era of the comprehensive university is upon us (trust me, I work in one). Ed Balls is not unique, just the latest in a long line of education ministers who has covered their ears and whistled so they can’t hear the concerns of those of us in the education system telling them some rather uncomfortable truths about education policy and its implementation.

In the words of Albert Einstein: not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

He’s talking about these stories.  Further evidence, I suggest, that Terence Kealey is wrong about the alleged continuing excellence of universities, but right that universities should retain their independence, and preferably have it strengthened.  Instead, that is to say, of becoming “comprehensives” living in a state of perpetual political derangement and deterioration.

If it is true that higher education is now and remains potentially a big export earner for Britain, and it is true, then stories like this won’t help one little bit:

Two French students have been found dead with multiple stab wounds in an East London flat, it was confirmed last night.

A double murder inquiry has been launched after the bodies of the two men, believed to be in their twenties, were discovered on Sunday, when firefighters were called to deal with a fire at the address in Sterling Gardens, New Cross.

A police source said the pair had been “horrifically murdered” adding that it was believed they may have been tortured before being killed and their flat set alight.

This was all over the early evening news today, complete with pictures.  It seems to have been a robbery that went wrong, by which I mean even more wrong.

It’s somewhat off topic for this blog, but I say: allow non-crims to be armed!

It may yet happen.  London, full of disarmed non-crims and armed crims, is rapidly becoming like New York used to be but is now so conspicuously not, a “crime capital”.  Any decade now, something might just give.  Or, to use the language of this blog, the lesson might be learned.

A current blog favourite of mine is the Spectator Coffee House blog, and they laugh at Ed Balls’s latest pronouncements, but actually most of what he says sounds not that ridiculous to me, although his notion of kids being tested without them even realising it does seem somewhat fanciful.  But I think he mostly emerges quite well from this interview, in contrast to how he lets himself look in this story.  Kindness and gentleness are all very well for schools, but when Ed Balls is in a hurry, forget about that.

As I often feel with incompetent socialist politicians, I think to myself, this man might have made a quite capable headmaster, and might actually have done some good, instead of either raging impotently at the ills of the institutions that he supposedly controls, or actually barging in to improve them, and thereby making them worse.

Anyway, the political cycle is such that it is rapidly ceasing to matter what Ed Balls thinks.  And you sense that even the New Statesman now realises this.

For an anti-Balls view that is serious rather than mocking, read the first comment at the NS:

My God, Ed Balls is employing some appalling sophistry with regard to SATs. Over the past 15 years or so, the push to ever more prescriptive curricula and more measurement has created huge amounts of performance anxiety in the education system. And, worst of all, is removing professional autonomy from educators. Children are not being taught how to think or question anything, merely pushed through a mechanistic process to turn out the service fodder for the 21st century that employers demand. Judging by recent comments from employers and the levels of literacy of school leavers, even this goal is not being met.

But according to Ed, it’s all the fault of the schools. This is such a transparent attempt to pass the buck that it would be plainly laughable, were it not for the fact that I am afraid he might actually be sincere. ...

But another commenter reacted much as I did:

Balls strikes absolutely the right tone here. He dismisses the media hysteria that seems to attach itself to stories involving children and yet acknowledges the kernel of truth upon which the stories are based. He sounds humane and measured - and, when attacked, manages to avoid sounding defensive.

It would be a good thing if Ball’s tone was replicated throughout the media.

Trouble is, it doesn’t matter how nice Mr Balls is when being interviewed.  He still presides over a nationalised industry in an advanced state of decay, and for that mere niceness is completely beside the point.  No wonder, when not performing to nice lady journalists, he opens car doors in people’s faces (see link above).


Children of all ages should study philosophy in school to develop their critical thinking skills, education experts said today.

Academics suggest that, rather than start off with Socrates, teachers use common classroom disputes to help children learn about abstract philosophical principles such as fairness, morality and punishment. They give the example of apportioning blame for spilling paint.

The book Philosophy in Schools, edited by Dr Michael Hand of the Institute of Education and Dr Carrie Winstanley of Roehampton University, puts forward several arguments for including philosophy in the school curriculum.

“Critical thinkers are people who reason well, and who judge and act on the basis of their reasoning,” Hand says.

“To become critical thinkers, children must learn what constitutes good reasoning and why it’s important - and these are philosophical matters.

“Exposure to philosophy should be part of the basic educational entitlement of all children.”

And so they should be forced to do it whether they like it or not. That’s what “entitlement” generally means: the government forcing people to receive what it wants to shove down their throats, and this time it’s no different.  People have the “basic right” to do as we bloody well tell them.

The stupid thing is that if the people who think this were actually to try doing it themselves, and just ask if others might like to sample it, it might be quite good, and lots of children might really like it.  And then it might spread, in the hands of people who got the point of it, and wanted the share the good news.  But can you imagine the intellectual chaos, to say nothing of the rebellions from school teachers, that would result from any schools, never mind all schools, being made to do this kind of thing?  Because, don’t you dare, as these wretched authors do - perhaps because they know no other way of saying: “this is a good book, please buy it and read it” -, confuse something being a worthwhile activity with it being something that everyone should be forced to submit to regardless, and have done to them by grumps who think it a ridiculous diversion from their real job.

Many teachers would surely say that what these bossy academics call “philosophy” is just intellectual common sense, and is embedded in the general texture of what they do.  Just as they also teach manners and morals, which people also often say should also be separate modules in the national curriculum, in everything that they do, or try to.  Insofar as these people seem semi-aware of this themselves, then it turns out that they aren’t saying so very much.  They are definition hopping, between two different notions of what “teaching philosophy” means.  They use the separate-module-in-the-syllabus foolishness to get publicity, because it is such a daft idea, but if challenged that they are merely hinting at compulsion to sell their books and boost their own prestige, they will retreat into claiming that all they are really saying is that teaching should be done intelligently.  By jingo, what a brilliant idea.  Let’s (not) buy the book about it.

They are, in short, being philosophically sloppy.

Wednesday July 02 2008

Yesterday was the hottest day of the year, and everyone at Kings Cross Supplementary seemed to be in a bit of a mood, certainly me.  Small Boy’s disposition was particularly negative, it having been severely aggravated by the fact that his little Nintendo games machine was doing something “mysterious”.  He used this word over and over again.  I am impressed that at his age he knows such a word, and its precise meaning, but I couldn’t solve the problem, which was making the games machine work as Small Boy thought it should.  Also he was coughing a bit, and I have yet to learn the medical diagnostic skills that are evidently part of the skill set of a Real Teacher.  Was Small Boy actually ill, or just reluctant to have yet more Education done to him, after a day spent having it done to him at his regular school?

We looked at maps of the world in a map book I had brought with me, and he pointed out different countries.  I persuaded him to allow me to pronounce country names that he didn’t know.  Namibia.  Zimbabwe.  Libya.  He pronounced ones he did know.  Morrocco.  Egypt.  Then he wrote, very badly, a list of countries, one of which was “United”.  But I guess that names of countries are often rather confusing.  How was he to know that United was part of United Kingdom when the Kingdom bit was quite a lot below the United bit? 

Small Boy used interesting arguments to explain that he needed no more Education.  I can already read, he said.  He came dangerously close to saying: “I already know everything”, which is obviously blasphemy if you are being Educated, and I subjected him to a big speech about he obviously had More To Learn because Everyone Has More To Learn.  (It never ends.  It’s a permanent treadmill.  You are Educated and Educated and Educated.  Then you die.  Welcome to the twenty first century, kid.  One of the more depressing things about being a teacher is the things you hear yourself saying.)

Smart Boy and Smart Girl both prefer talking with me to having Education done to them, but Miss Head Teacher was adamant.  They must do sums in the class.

The most memorable moment of the evening for me was when Mr Maths also made a speech.  “Smart Girl, why are you wandering around?  Sit down in your place.  If everyone wandered around, there would be Anarchy instead of Order.” It was like in a movie, where the script writer has completely abandoned realism in order to explain the Underlying Point Being Made In This Scene, except that Mr Maths really said that.  I’m afraid I was not much help to him, probably because I am an anarchist.  But eventually I was able to contribute to the imposition of Order with the necessary mixture of prison guarding and maths tuition.  So I guess that means I’m not an Anarchist any more.

Seriously though, one interesting educational issue did crop up, which concerns the methods used to teach things like long division and “long multiplication”.  (I’d never heard of that one before.) Every teacher and every school seems to use a different method for these things.  There’s the “grid” method, and various others I can’t remember the names of.  Do different methods confuse, for doing something like multiplying 57 by 34?  Or do different methods throw light on the underlying things that are really going on, the way that speaking several different languages is supposed to make children cleverer by giving them an instinctive philosophical grasp of what language is (and is not) that other children are denied?  I suspect that the clever kids – and all the kids at Kings Cross Supplementary seem pretty smart to me - do actually gain a bit from having sums that they find easy taught to them in an unfamiliar way.

Just after writing all that, I went in to the Civitas Office to find out how I was doing, in their opinion.  They were nice, but the message was unmistakeable.  Less Anarchy, please.  More Order.

Tuesday July 01 2008

Miss Snuffleupagus reports and reflects:

When I worked in all-boys schools, I learnt a foolproof method of breaking up fights. I simply had to put myself in the middle of the two combatants, and they would immediately step away from each other. It had something to do with being in a predominantly male environment. The boys instinctively knew that hitting a girl, or even coming close to doing so, was unacceptable. Male teachers for instance, could not use my tactic successfully. They had to separate the boys by force.

Having used my clever method for years, it has become an instinctive reaction when I see a fight. I forget that in a mixed school, the constant presence of the girls means that chivalry is not cherished by the boys, as it is in a male-only environment.

Entire books could be (have been?) written about what happens to behaviour when a school switches from all boy to boy-girl.  I remember being told by an academic at Royal Holloway College, which was near us when I grew up, that when they did that switch, one of the big changes was that all the gays suddenly came blazing out of their closets and started dressing like they were on TV or something.  All that well-dressed competition?  Don’t know, but that’s apparently what happened.

Indeed.  The Bishop takes a bash at eco-brainwashing in a (private) school:

Not if we should recycle, or when we should recycle, but why we should recycle. The person who wrote this is clearly intellectually challenged. Do they really believe that it is always best to recycle? No matter what level of resources is required? Who would want their children taught by someone who believed such nonsense?

If he can teach reading, writing, grammar, comprehension, manners, then maybe yes.  And perhaps yes because they also want recycling to be taught also.  The market will decide.  The Bishop’s most pertinent complaint is that the teacher didn’t capitalise a film title.

A national religion (and I do agree that this is that) is a very hard thing to resist.  Next: home-ed by anti-environmentalists.

More science teaching woe.  That’s a Buckingham University report, which I found because it is linked to from here.  Can’t afford physics teachers.  Can’t keep ‘em.  Often can’t even get ‘em to apply.