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Category archive: Europe

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 03 2008

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Sunday May 25 2008

Tim Worstall of the ASI picks up on this piece in the Independent about the Dutch state education system, which makes it sound very good.  Why can’t it be like that here?

Yes, it’s Holland, the Netherlands. The how is that they have a variation of the voucher system that we argue for here at the ASI. The parents choose the school, any one of them that they wish subject to minimal licencing requirements and the government pays the bills. Yes, top up fees are allowed, parents making that decision for themselves as well. We might also note that the Netherlands is a great deal more egalitarian than the UK and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that it has greater social mobility as well (for those who worry about such things).

Engineers have a saying that you can have “better, faster, cheaper, pick any two” for you can’t have all three. But it appears that we run our current education system so appallingly badly that we can indeed make it better, fairer and cheaper.

I have my doubts about getting from where we are to there, but I am in favour of the attempt being made.

Going Dutch?
On the sociology of obnoxious-but-nice middle class teenagers
The Stockholm Network on choice and competition in schools
Why no transfer fees?
Eastern Europeans flooding into British universities
Happy Finns?
A Julia Roberts moment with Jan Carnogursky
Mariana Bell talks about Romanian education under Communism
Fleeing from a law introduced by Hitler
Education as making Prussian soldiers
The teacher who saved Jonas Kaufmann’s voice
Polish deputy education minister says the British should learn Polish
The jaws of bias
Continuing education
Andrea Bocelli on Amos Martelacci
“Their education is completely useless …”