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Category archive: Equality

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.

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.

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.

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 May 29 2008


Does an education at an elite public school diminish a politician’s legitimacy? Gordon Brown’s dismissal of David Cameron as “just an Old Etonian” signifies not just his view that products of privilege have no place in politics, but also that the electorate will, as a matter of course, reject him ab initio because of his background.

Boris Johnson’s election as mayor of London appears to have put paid to that idea. There could hardly be a more caricature Old Etonian than the foppish Johnson, but it did not stop voters in the most cosmopolitan city in the world from electing him. Far from seeing him as a pre-modern relic, they relished his postmodern idiosyncrasy.

I think “didn’t stop” is right, and all this may even have helped.  After all, the real story of these elections was that the voters wanted to give Gordon Brown, and his government, and his party, a good kicking.  If that meant putting on Boris Johnson as a boot, so be it.  It was one of those “we’d vote for a pig rather than these bastards” elections.  The worse - the less legitimate, the more risible, the more of a posh pig - many voters still reckon people like Boris Johnson to be, the more forcefully that point was made.

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.

Monday April 07 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday February 28 2008

Ilya Somin of the Volokh Conspiracy puts the case against government subsidies for college tuition.

Here in Britain, we learn (FMOAK’s short blog posting links to this) that potential students at universities, poor ones especially of course, faced with loans and then lifetimes of debt, rather than outright gifts, are thinking again about whether a university education will really be worth all that future cost.

Good.  That’s what prices are supposed to do.  Such thoughts will undoubtedly stimulate - are undoubtedly stimulating – further thoughts, about how to supply many of the benefits of university education, without most of the costs.  Good again.

Thinking again about the cost of going to university
Madsen Pirie on using bright children to make unbright children brighter
Conservative headline
David Thompson on the obligation to mingle