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Category archive: Bits from books

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.

Thursday March 20 2008

Time for another book chunk, and again I reach for a book about sport, What Sport Tells Us About Life by the Middlesex and England professional cricketer, and writer and journalist Ed Smith, who read history at Peterhouse, Cambridge.  Sport figures prominently in education, if only because boys do love it so, and Ed Smith’s book about sport has a lot to say about education.  This particular passage once again pours a bucket of cold water all over that cliché about how those but can do while those who can’t teach.  The Billy Beane story shows that failing at a game often prepares you ideally to be in charge of it, and of telling others how to play it and run it.  As Smith says towards the end of this excerpt, “we never think more deeply than about our profoundest failings”.

An academic study once traced the fortunes of a generation of high-school beauty queens across America.  How had the beautiful people done in the game of real life?  Not very well.  Fifteen years on, the high-school beauty queens were typically doing worse - in terms of wealth, careers and even happiness - than their less good-looking contemporaries.  They had peaked too early.  It is another version of the parable of the hare and the tortoise.

We can only speculate what went wrong.  Perhaps they had found adolescence so easy that the rest of life was a slow process of disappointment.  Maybe, all too familiar with childhood adulation, they crumpled at the first adult rejections. Perhaps there is something in the cliché that you can be too pretty for your own good.

How could the same principle - the curse of talent - apply to much more interesting worlds than the adult frustrations of ageing beauty queens?  A baseball team, a brilliant manager and a publishing phenomenon are a good place to start.  The team is the Oakland Athletics, the manager is Billy Beane and the bestseller is Michael Lewis’s Moneyball.

Not only is Moneyball one of the best and most influential sports books ever written, but it also could have been subtitled, ‘How being the sporting equivalent of a beauty queen ruined my career and made me turn conventional wisdom on its head.’

imageIf you were trying genetically to construct the perfect professional sportsman, you would probably end up with someone who looked like Billy Beane.  By the time he was fourteen, he was 6’ 4” (six inches taller than his father), impossibly athletic and seemingly able to pick up and master any sport at will. Beane was the high-school quarterback, the star basketball player and a peerless baseball player.  Michael Lewis wrote about Beane in Moneyball, ‘He found talents in himself almost before his body was ready to exploit them: he could dunk a basketball before his hands were big enough to palm it.’

Scouts from professional baseball hovered around the schoolboy prodigy, each of them desperate to get to know Beane personally.  The attention was so overwhelming that Beane would run from practice straight to a friend’s house to avoid the scouts’ incessant phone calls to his home.

Beane had each of the five ‘tools’ that baseball scouts revered: he could run, throw, field, hit, and hit with power.  Beane was also intelligent, ambitious and intensely competitive.  Above all, Beane had the kind of sharp features the scouts respected.  Many of them still believed they could tell by the structure of a boy’s face whether he would make it in professional sport.  They had a phrase they used: ‘the good face’.  Beane had the good face.

Unsurprisingly, Beane was first-round draft pick by the New York Mets.  He hoped to combine his new $125,000 salary with his admission to Stanford - but the university withdrew Beane’s place once they discovered he would not be playing baseball for them.  The young man’s predestined greatness as a baseball player now faced no further impediments.

Except it never happened.  Beane had a miserable six-year major-league career, averaging just .219 with only three home runs.  He played for different teams at different levels; he tried every possible technical approach; he smashed up dressing rooms and raged against himself; he retained the aura of a superstar without the achievements.  He simply couldn’t hit.  Michael Lewis summed up what had gone wrong for Beane: ‘A wall came down between him and his talent, and he didn’t know any other way to get through the wall than to try to smash a hole in it.  It wasn’t merely that he didn’t like to fail; it was as if he didn’t know how to fail.’

‘Whom the gods wish to destroy,’ wrote Cyril Connolly, ‘they first call promising.’ By 1990, Beane had had enough.  He walked from the locker room to the front office of the Oakland Athletics and became the first professional baseball player ever to pronounce the sentence: ‘I quit as a player. I want to be a scout.’

The end of one of the most disappointing playing careers ushered in the beginning of one of the great managerial careers.  Beane was quickly recognized as a brilliant scout and judge of players, and in 1997 graduated to far greater powers as general manager - the youngest GM in the game.  The turnaround was astonishing.  In 1997, the Athletics won sixty-five and lost ninety-seven games.  From 2000 onward, the As consistently won around ninety games, all of this despite losing their stars every year due to having one of the smallest payrolls in baseball.  In 2002, the As won 103 games - matched only by the New York Yankees, a team that cost three times as much.

How had Beane managed to mess up a playing career that ‘couldn’t go wrong’, and then to mastermind a managerial record that was apparently impossible within the financial inequalities of major-league baseball?  The answers are linked.  Experiencing the first had led Beane to the solutions he used to achieve the second.

Beane’s reflections on his own career had taught him to respect performance - largely because it was never demanded of him as an emerging player.  Everyone assumed talent would get him through.  Where he had been indulged himself, he was careful not to make the same mistake with others.

Talent, he discovered, is rated too highly. One cliché that bounced around the dressing-room walls was: ‘He’s got the talent, so he’s bound to get better.’ In fact, talent only matures when harnessed within a personality that is capable of self-improvement.  And talent, ironically, has a nasty knack of protecting the talented from the urge to self-improve.  Super-talented young sportsmen, never having needed resilience thus far, often lack the psychological capacity to develop it when life gets tough in the big leagues.  Beane could vouch for that himself.

Conclusion one: the As stopped signing high-school prodigies who looked great in a baseball uniform and seemed predestined to ‘make it’, and started signing college players who had a proven track record of being able to score runs - and something going for them beyond baseball.  Everyone said the As were mad. But the runs kept coming.

If talent was overrated, Beane discovered that personality was too often ignored by scouts and managers.  The baseball community overestimated its own capacity to graft real psychological resilience on to inert, talented young men.  But it also suffered from a reflexive fear of players who operated outside the predictable range of jock-sportsman routine behaviour.  Many coaches wanted clay models to mould with their own imprints of what a champion should look like.  The difficulty, of course, is that real champions want to be themselves.  So while show ponies were patiently indulged by the baseball community, independent-minded performers were written off as difficult ‘eccentrics’.  Principle two: we’ll have the eccentrics, you can keep the show ponies.

By 2002, Beane was the most sought-after general manager in baseball.  He was almost hired away by the Boston Red Sox, while two of his assistants went on to become general managers themselves.  In 2004, Theo Epstein won the World Series with the Red Sox using methods devised alongside Beane at Oakland - a case of flattery by imitation.  In fact, by that point almost every team was at least dabbling with what had become known as Moneyball methods.

Beane’s personal history was central to the Oakland experiment.  We never think more deeply than about our profoundest failings.  They often form the foundations of our clearest analytical insights.  Beane had wrestled with the reasons for his own frustrating career and come up with some original answers.

In Beane’s case, the way his own career had foundered and been misinterpreted became the guiding principle of his managerial code.  He concluded: the baseball system couldn’t even imagine I would mess things up - but I did, despite phenomenal talent and intense ambition, so there must be fundamental flaws in the received wisdom behind the system.

Sunday March 09 2008

The Times today has an excerpt from a book about The heroic Englishman China will never forget.  Turns out he was a teacher.  They used to make movies about this kind of thing.  Perhaps the idea is that they should again, but I don’t think that would now be on.

Hello.  I blogged too soon:


I found out about the forthcoming movie The Children of Huang Shi, at this place, while Googling for images of this man, whose name was George Hogg.  But the bit at the bottom of the Times piece where it says ...

A film inspired by the story, The Children of Huang Shi, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Chow Yun Fat, Radha Mitchell and Michelle Yeoh, and directed by Roger Spottiswoode, will be released in the UK later following a US opening in May

... should have been a bit of a clue.

More about this story, and a picture of the real George Hogg, here.  It would seem that this is not the kind of movie the Americans made in the fifties, about a heroic Christian being persecuted by evil Communists.  This guy appears to have been very much an official Communist hero, or so it would seem.  All of which makes me want to read the book.

Tuesday February 05 2008

imageI’m a rugby fan, and rugby is on my mind a lot just now, probably because the Six Nations Championship is just getting under way.  I’ve quoted at length from Clive Woodward’s book, Winning! already, the bit where his father forced Woodward to give up soccer and switch to rugby, by sending him to HMS Conway.  Woodward’s time at Loughborough University was very different:

If HMS Conway represented the darkest period of-my life, my time at Loughborough University was one of the brightest. I spent the better part of four years there, and those years were a great contrast to my school days.

That’s the great thing about university. It’s an environment where you can try and do all sorts of things and not have to worry too much about the risks. You can make mistakes and it doesn’t have to matter that much. You learn. The real world isn’t always so forgiving.  University is a relatively safe environment not only to learn subjects, but also to learn about life.

Woodward’s Loughborough story illustrates very well the difference between people who do well at university and people who waste their time and other people’s money.  Woodward chose Loughborough.  More exactly, he chose one particular teacher at Loughborough.  He had a clear idea of what he wanted to learn there, and who he wanted to learn it from.

Loughborough is, of course, the country’s top Sports Science university today, and it was the top place then, when I arrived there for the first time, brimming with anticipation. Good people from all kinds of sports all over the UK went there because they could really train properly - it was a real centre of excellence with superb facilities. Most sports were amateur in Britain in those days, and Loughborough drew in all the really talented people from a wide range of sports.

So you had to be pretty talented both academically and at sports to get there in the first place, but to me Loughborough was also just four years of real enjoyment. And I ended with a degree, a BSc in Sports Science and Technology. Things have changed since my day, with the course now demanding A’s at A level to gain entry. All I wanted to do was have four years at university, doing the things I liked doing best.

But above all:

Basically, I went to Loughborough for one reason, to play my best rugby, and for one man, Jim Greenwood. If I was going to play for England, it made sense to go where the best coach was. I wanted to see how this guy would help my game. Rugby was an amateur game then of course, but Loughborough was the closest I would get to playing at professional level. I was that little bit slighter than some of the others, but pace, as in all sports, tends to be the deciding factor. As well as pace, I wanted to compete by playing differently, thinking differently.  So naturally I was eager to start working with Jim Greenwood.

Note the point about how Woodward was basically there to enjoy doing what he most loved to do.  I don’t believe that quality in education is determined by the alleged quality of the subject or activity you study, so much as by the enthusiasm and intelligence with which you study it.  If you want to be a hotel manager, and you study hotel management with passion and intelligence, that’s far better than doing a “proper subject” like maths or English literature, but listlessly and with only dumb obedience, and with your heart not in it.

Jim Greenwood had played for his home country, Scotland, and had been selected for the British Lions, so I knew he had been an outstanding player who understood the game inside and out. As it turned out, Jim and I had experienced similar frustrations in the game. He too felt there was so much more to be done on the rugby pitch, that there was so much more to the game than most people were aware of.

His whole ethos was different, and he basically taught what we would now call a standard fifteen-man rugby game compared to the then preferred style of ten-man rugby being played by the national side. In the latter, the focus is on the forwards. Keep it tight and power the ball down the pitch, basically out-muscling the opposition in the forwards, brawn not brain.  England were well-known for the size and strength of their forward pack, and they habitually used this style of play. Jim Greenwood’s style was almost the complete opposite in terms of central focus: use all the players on the pitch wherever possible all of the time - everyone had a role to play, even if you were on the other side of the pitch.

Jim’s book, Total Rugby, the only rugby coaching book I’ve ever read, first came out in 1978 when I was at Loughborough. It was way ahead of its time, and has since become a closely studied classic, especially in New Zealand. It’s now in its fifth edition, and I enjoyed writing a foreword to it only last year.

So here was this Scotsman, a lecturer at Loughborough in the middle of England, flying in the face of conventional wisdom and re-writing all the rule books in the process. I loved it. It was exactly what I’d been searching for since I first began playing rugby at Conway. I played for Jim for three years, captaining the squad my last two. I respect his views on the game more than those of any other man in rugby. We’re still in contact to this day, although he’s well and truly retired in a little village up in Scotland now. No man has done more in our time to singlehandedly transform the modern game of rugby than Jim Greenwood.

For a start, under him we practised weight training, analysing the opposition, and other forms of conditioning, including diet and nutrition programmes that were just way ahead. Outside Loughborough there weren’t any clubs doing that kind of training, though they were starting to do it in the southern hemisphere. It so happened that Greenwood’s ideas and style of play were concurrently being developed, in the emerging schoolboys sides in Australia, the same group of players who would go on to demonstrate in the eighties how a well-executed running game could so thoroughly dismantle a side focused on ten-man rugby.

It’s a sad fact that Jim Greenwood never coached a side at international level. As for England, in that era it was unlikely that anyone who was not English was ever going to coach the country. But I have a feeling that there was more to it: I think the conventional rugby establishment of the time were scared of the likes of Greenwood.

They simply couldn’t take in the ideas of visionaries like him because his ideas would have shaken up a lot of their coaches in the way they played. It was too far from what they knew and believed in, and introducing substantially different ideas would have exposed their real lack of knowledge. To do it Greenwood’s way would have required them to coach a team to take risks in front of a packed house at Twickenham - English rugby was not about innovation or risky play.

Jim continued to be ignored by the various unions in this part of the world, so he went to Japan and is responsible for the lively style of Japanese play today. His concept of Total Rugby is the antithesis of play-safe rugby. Total rugby is an open game in which every player is encouraged to show what he can do as an attacker, defender and supporting player. Jim’s book has become one of the game’s most important coaching manuals. Even in his seventies the man is unquestionably one of the world’s most highly regarded rugby coaches. Jim Greenwood is in the National Coaching Foundation’s inaugural Hall of Fame, and has also been elected as an official Legend of Scottish Rugby.

He really was the premier strategist of the game.

My point is, when you’re around twenty, you need to be looking for a teacher who excites you, and ideally, excites you as much as Jim Greenwood excited Clive Woodward.  I have another picture here of Clive Woodward.  Those are easy enough to find.  But I’ve looked and looked for a picture of Jim Greenwood and could find nothing.  If anyone can supply a link to such a picture, I’d be most grateful.

I can’t resist also quoting this next bit, by way of a bonus, about other champions and other coaches:

But Loughborough wasn’t just Jim Greenwood.

One of my direct contemporaries was Seb (now Lord) Coe, the legendary middle-distance runner, Olympic champion and in his day world record-holder over 1500 metres. While I was at Loughborough I had a chance to see how he trained: the psychology, the nutrition, all the things that go to making a champion. His coach was George Gandy.  And just as I had gone to Loughborough to meet Greenwood, Coe would have gone there to meet Gandy.

It was great to watch Coe do something incredible, like twelve consecutive 300-metre runs, walking in between with Gandy screaming at him. I can remember sitting there thinking, Imagine if we had a rugby team that were as powerful and as fit as that? It would be a world beater, no mistake.

Another of my contemporaries, John Trower who threw javelin, went on to coach Steve Backley to an Olympic bronze medal. I often sat next to John, who spent half his time in the gym, and I was just fascinated to learn from him and the other people around me in different areas of sport. My unspoken thought was always, Why is rugby so far behind? Why were we so ridiculously amateur?

Interestingly, many of the coaches that I eventually brought into the England coaching team hail from Loughborough themselves, and so I have more to be grateful for from this institution than just my own education.

Old boy networks start in all kinds of places, not just Eton.

There is so much more to university education than merely getting in to one that other people are impressed by.  In my opinion this posting has shown you a textbook example of how to choose a university (by choosing an individual teacher), and how to get maximum benefit from it when you get there.

Thursday January 03 2008

A surprising but true fact about the early life of England’s triumphant rugby union coach whose team won the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final is that his first sporting love was not rugby at all, but soccer.  But his father had other ideas and sent him to the Royal Navy training college, HMS Conway, where soccer was ignored and rugby insisted upon.  Here, from his book Winning! (pages 22-24 of my paperback edition), is Woodward’s description of this amazing episode:

imageTo most, HMS Conway was a great school. But to this day my school days there remain the darkest days of my life.  Ask any Conway old boy and he’ll probably tell you of his many fond memories of the place.  I’d say it could have been a good school, if only they had allowed me to play football.  Without football, it was like a prison, my very own Alcatraz.

The school was located on the island of Anglesey in North Wales in those days, about four hours’ drive from our home in Yorkshire.  But it may just as well have been on the moon, it was so removed from what I knew and loved.  I’ll always remember the name of the local village, the longest in Wales: Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, called Llanfair (pronounced Clanfare) for short, is itself an abbreviation!  The full name runs to fifty-eight letters.

‘Dad, please let me come home. They don’t play football here.’ I pleaded with him by telephone after my first day.  ‘They don’t even like football here.  If I’m seen with a football the headmaster will go crazy and the older boys will just beat me up.  All they’re into is rugby.’ I was vaguely familiar with rugby, having seen an international match on TV when there was nothing else on.  Watching it on TV, it seemed a daft game with rules that were hard to follow.

‘Sometimes you’ve just got to get on with it, Clive.  It’s character-building,’ was all he would allow.

Get on with it then?  Right.  So I did just that.  At breakfast the next morning I filled my pockets and did a runner!  It took me all day, but I walked and hitchhiked my way right across the country.  I was a thirteen-year-old on a mission to go back and play football.

My parents were waiting for me at the door when I arrived home.  My father grabbed his coat in one hand and my arm in the other.  He marched me out to the car and drove me right back the way I had come.  I was seeing a side to my father I just did not know was there.

‘Good job you were not Geoff Hurst’s father or the bloody World Cup would be in Munich!’

Silence.  Hardly a word was said the whole trip.

A few days later, I ran away again.  This time, instead of driving me back, they put me on a train at York back to the nearest town to the school.  Bangor, and especially that railway station, quickly became my least favourite place in the world.  Still is.  A week after that, I made a third break for it.  Sooner or later my father would get the message: I was not going to accept this.  I was coming home, and I was going to play football.

Unfortunately, it was I who got the message in the end – literally, in the form of a three-foot heavy marine rope with thick knots as hard as steel, not so fondly known as ‘the teaser’ by the other young cadets who were on the receiving end of it.  HMS Conway was a tough school and discipline was handed down by the senior cadets.  It was embarrassing to the school that I had run away once, let alone three times. The senior cadet captain had copped an earful from our headmaster, Mr Basil Lord, and he wasn’t shy about passing it on.  Corporal punishment handed out by eighteen-year-olds was no fun, but worse still this lot had never heard of Bobby Moore!  I was trouble, there were consequences, and I didn’t like the attention I was getting, nor did my body.  As much as I had a point to prove, survival was first and foremost.

Still, I made one more attempt.  My maths teacher, Mr Goodey, was my last chance.  He taught only one subject and so didn’t live at the school like the majority of the teachers.  Coincidentally, he also coached schoolboy football in nearby Bangor.  We’d had a bit of a kick about one afternoon and he was amazed at what I could do with a football.  He was so impressed that he even offered to pick me up and drop me off to training so that I could play with his club side.

I’ll never forget the look on Mr Lord’s face when I knocked on his study door that night, asking for one more chance at football.  I explained how Mr Goodey had offered to handle everything.

‘How many times do I have to tell you. Woodward ...’ His steely expression of muted rage is etched into my mind.  ‘If you do not stop all this nonsense I will take the teaser to you as well.’

It was then that I realised I wasn’t going to beat this.  If I wanted to survive, I had to play by their rules.