19 December 2007

For Christmas leavers

Some of those who support this government's proposals for raising the educational leaving age argue that it is both liberal and utilitarian. Intellectual dishonesty, or simply ignorance of what the word liberty actually means, prevents them from saying what they actually think, which is the limitation of freedom that these proposals would entail is justified on utilitarian grounds.

My own view is that while a commitment to liberty properly understood should be enough to oppose this latest proposed ROSLA*, I think it's worth emphasizing that it is unlikely to provide much utility to pupils who would have otherwise left at the age of 16.

The two are, of course, related. One of my main frustration when reading much of what journalists and bloggers have to say about education is that they fail to do justice to what I think most teachers, at least in my experience, would argue is the single most significant barrier to learning in our secondary schools - which is indiscipline. Most of this has to do with the fact that our 'compulsory education system' doesn't provide the teacher with much in the way of mechanisms or sanctions that might be used for the whole compulsion thing. In reality, it is only attendance that is compulsory - although success even in this area hasn't been exactly universal.

None of this is acknowledged by advocates of raising the school leaving age who, having confused causation with correlation, believe the benefits of a further two years of education will be conferred to all simply by forcing everyone to attend senior school. I don't think anyone from the ROSLA camp - those who have had teenagers described to them - has given a moment's thought to what impact on our schools these proposals might have. This brings me to the Christmas leavers...

Christmas leavers are those pupils whose parents, for reasons best know to themselves, enrolled their children when they were four. This means they have to wait until they've completed part of what is fifth year in Scotland before they are 16. They can be a bit of a pain sometimes, frequently bringing to senior classes the sort of behaviour that disrupts much of the teaching in the lower school. But they have this saving grace: Christmas leavers are those that assume nothing is to be gained from prolonging their education longer than necessary. This is why they leave at Christmas without bothering even to hang around for the next six months or so that would take them up to the exams.

This is where I take strong issue with those advocating raising the school leaving age. In ten years I don't think I can recall one instance where I thought the Christmas leaver's assessment of their own educational prospects was mistaken. Rather with these it is invariably obvious that the law of diminishing returns had set in usually at least a year before they turned 16 and while we bear them no ill-will, we are as glad to see the back of them as they are of us. Implicit in the government's plans to raise the educational leaving age is the belief that they know better than the 16 year old. Now while 16 year olds lack knowledge about many things, there is one area where their understanding is undoubtedly superior to HM Government - unlike ministers, they know what schools are actually like.

*The present Scottish administration, despite it's many shortcomings, have decided not to inflict this nonsense on Scottish schools, thank goodness, so I can't be accused of being too self-interested here.

15 December 2007

Call To Lower School Leaving Age!

Rather than the educational conscription proposed by the government that myself and the others [such as Fabian Tassano, Surreptitious Evil, and Devil's Kitchen] who write this group blog are constantly arguing against, it has now been suggested that children should have the opportunity to leave school at 14 - by the head of the UK's biggest education authority, no less.

His point is that, very simply, some children are not academically gifted and are not suited to classroom teaching and learning - and as such would benefit far more from apprenticeships.

Some 14-year-olds will probably be better off in some kind of apprenticeship...
That's how they will get success...
[W]e need to cater for the range of people and the range of jobs we all have in society.
The response of the NUT that the earnings of those who stay on and get qualifications is "much higher" than those who have "simply left school very early and gone on to do some very specific training." Yes, it may well be. But those who leave school at 14 will not be the kind of people who benefit from classroom learning or those who are likely to be suited to do the jobs that require high qualifications. They are the people essential to our society - plumbers, electricians, builders etc. - without whom our modern society is screwed. That the NUT believe that qualifications are essential and required in order to live a useful and productive life betrays their love of the testing regime.

Not everyone can have high qualifications and great high paid jobs. And not everyone is suited to them. It's a simple fact of life.

However, at the very least, children shouldn't be allowed to leave school at 14 unless they have an apprenticeship to go to. I'm not entirely convinced by the idea that children should be able to leave school so early, but it is certainly far better than forcing them to stay there for longer. At least they then have the choice to make, the choice which this government seems determined to take away from 16-18 year olds.


This post is cross posted at my blog.

11 November 2007

Coercion, regulation, compulsion (contd.)

Dr Gordon Brown: (my emphasis)

My Government is committed to raising educational standards and giving everyone the chance to reach their full potential. … A Bill will be introduced to ensure that young people stay in education or training until age 18.
My Government is committed to providing a healthcare system organised around the needs of the patient. … Legislation will be introduced to create a stronger health and social care regulator.
My Government will bring forward proposals to help people achieve a better balance between work and family life. … A bill will place a duty on every employer to contribute to good quality workplace pensions for their employees.
My Government will take further action to create stronger communities and tackle terrorism. … My Government will seek a consensus on changes to the law on terrorism so that the police and other agencies have the powers they need to protect the public …

Mr David Cameron:

Re the counter-terrorism Bill: “we welcome it”.

Re proposals to coerce adults to receive ‘education’ or ‘training’ (as defined by the government): “the Government are going backwards [by] abolishing the A-level”.

Media puff for the coercive education of adults:

“Important … genuinely radical”
The Independent

In a parallel universe:

Leader of the Opposition:

We are suspicious of the right hon. gentleman’s proposed counter-terrorism Bill. We suspect he has no real respect for well-established principles of liberty, and merely seeks to increase state powers in line with his ideological commitment to boosting collective rights at the expense of the individual. We are not convinced there is a case for doubling to 56 days the period during which a British citizen may be held by the police without charge.

We regard it as a wholly inappropriate response to declining state school standards that individuals should be forced to attend them for even longer. Such a breach of liberty would — if it were to be acceptable at all — require a long drawn-out period of debate, and very strong evidence that it is a sound remedy for a serious problem, and we have had neither. On the contrary, the Professional Association of Teachers have already expressed their strong objections to criminalising the non-attendence of seventeen-year-olds.

Further reading: (see esp. the comments)
Stumbling & Mumbling
Liberal Conspiracy

10 November 2007

Marching towards a glorious future

Crossposted from DSTPFW, some sterling satire from George Szirtes.

A Statement from The Ministry of Truth: Education (Schools) Department

We are living in glorious times. Our children are ever better qualified, their future – and ours – ever brighter. 99% of all school leavers have four A levels or more. The numbers of those claiming benefit after leaving school have gone down and down. We confidently look forward to a time when everyone goes to university and no one is claiming benefits. The super-heads we have appointed to rescue the very few schools that were failing have utterly transformed those institutions. Their students come to school enthusiastic and leave enthusiastic. Our policies have empowered such wonderful dedicated heads and their extraordinarily talented and hard working staff, who have received the best training, training of hitherto only dreamt of standard, to maximise their potential, to turn chaff into wheat, to feed the hungry, to top league tables and to put this country at the very head of academic achievement.

There remains, however, an almost insignificant minority of failures: schools where the heads are weak, where they fail to sack their incompetent teachers, and, as we know, there are few people more incompetent than incompetent teachers, teachers under whom little or nothing of value gets done. Indeed it is worse than that. This tiny minority is a drain on our resources: they damage your children, they ruin our figures. We have to extirpate these parasites, weed them out, drag them kicking and screaming from the soil they are bent on holding on to and destroying. If we do not act now this country will go to the dogs. They, and they alone, are responsible for the upbringing of our extraordinarily talented and hard working young people, and we must make an example of them. As the first step in this process one in every five teachers in all schools will be taken out and shot. Once this is done the country can go forward and enjoy the fruits of our brave and radical policies, including, I am delighted to announce, the new school-leaving age of twenty-five.

George Szirtes

6 November 2007

English Educational Conscription

In addition to my diatribe yesterday on educational conscription, something has just occured to me - this law will apply only in England. Only English children will have to stay in school until 18. Only English children will be deprived of their liberties and their freedom.

As such, when this law comes before Parliament, not one MP for a Scottish or Welsh constituency had better vote. This does not apply in their constsituencies, so I do not want to see them force two years of extra schooling onto English children but not those in Scotland and Wales.

That they even could do it illustrates the issues with our current devolution system.

Cross-posted from The ThunderDragon

5 November 2007

Educational Conscription

I written what is pretty much a diatribe against this new policy of our statist government. I would post it here, but I have rather littered it with swear words so it isn't really appropriate to do so.

Go here to read it.

4 November 2007

"State owns your ass for a further two years"

Harry Haddock fron Nation of Shopkeepers writes:

So, Blinky Balls is going to increase, by two years, the amount of time the government can tell you what to do with your life.

Now, these illiterate, qualification free teenagers that are seen as a ‘problem’ to be solved by the state are clearly not going to learn anything in these extra two years that they have been unable or unwilling to learn in the previous 11. They are highly likely to be dysfunctional to such an extent that they will be un-employable, so on the job training is an unlikely outcome. So, what exactly are the state going to do with them for this period? Stuff them into schools and colleges against their will, where they can disrupt those who are their voluntarily? Force them on to unwilling employers? Or throw money at trendy, expensive schemes in the hope that they suddenly realise the error of their ways and reform over night?

I have a friend that works in exactly this area. The answer is, I’m afraid, a combination of 1 & 3 above. Oh goody.

30 October 2007

The pieces fall into place

There seems to have been surprisingly little commentary so far from the right-wing blogosphere about the latest development on the from-ALevels-to-diplomas evolution saga, though these two make for interesting reading. (Care to link here, gentlemen?)

I think the case provides a useful illustration of the difference between NewLabour under Blair and NewLabour under Brown. Mr Blair, it will be recalled, at least expressed opposition to the abolition of A-levels, even if we never quite knew with him how much any given expression of sentiment actually amounted to. In the enthusiasm to focus hostility on the person rather than the ideology, it may have been forgotten that in many ways Mr Blair represented a brake on the more extreme collectivist-egalitarian elements of his party. Dr Brown, whatever his true underlying belief system may really be (it's a bit obscure, though we can be fairly sure it is not libertarian), seems less willing or able to resist those collectivist forces.

Here are two letters to the Telegraph which suggest that, like every other educational change this government has forced on schools, the proposals to bring in diplomas have been driven by theory and ideology rather than practicality, and with a minimum of thought, planning or consultation — the latter probably being limited to carefully selected pseudo-consultation in such a way that potential disagreement either would not arise or could be brushed aside.

The first letter is from the President of the Royal Society of Chemistry:

Sir – The Royal Society of Chemistry questions the way that the Government revealed its plans for the projected new school science diplomas. It is unclear what is being proposed by the Government, but any changes affecting A-levels and GCSEs should not be taken without deep and wide-ranging consultations.
There was a failure here to achieve joined-up thinking. Some of those closest to discussions over the past six months, and even other government bodies, have been taken by surprise as a specialised planned vocational qualification has morphed into a brand new educational system. This is no way to treat teachers or young people in secondary education. We regard it as making policy on the hoof.
The future of our young people is not a frivolous matter; it is central to the economic and social fabric of the nation. Decision-making on such matters as the introduction of diplomas should reflect that seriousness fully.

The second is from Colin Peacocke, an eminently sensible chap whom I happen to know personally.

Sir – For almost two decades, I served as the most senior administrative officer in the University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations (providing A-levels, GCSEs and a variety of other examinations, including a number in the vocational field).
Bitter experience showed my colleagues and me that it takes some 25 years for new examinations to be fully accepted by the academic and business communities for use as selection tools for student entry or the recruitment of employees. The reason is a straightforward matter of perception. The person conducting the assessment of an applicant better understands the value of the candidate's qualifications if they are the same as those the assessor holds already.
The Secretary of State's time-scale is far too short. We were promised that education, in general, would be permitted to achieve stability, with changes being kept to a minimum. This announcement seems another "bright idea" trotted out by a tired government.

What I find interesting about this development is that it explains two of the puzzles thrown up by the plan to force all 16 to 18-year-olds into education: (a) what are they going to do there, and (b) how are we going to avoid having the non-egalitarian horror of a two-tier system?

Time allowed: 15 minutes.

Pens down, please.

(a) They will do diplomas, in subjects ranging from "health and social care" to "hair and beauty" to "sport and leisure" to "travel and tourism".
(b) There will be no A-levels. Everyone will do diplomas, which will become the "jewel in the crown" of Brown & Balls the British education system.

28 September 2007

Failing Schools: Stating the obvious

Hot off the press from The Department of the Bleedin Obvious (DotBO) is the news that failing schools could harm the economy. "Could" is not the term I would use - "almost certainly will" is how I would phrase it.

Failing schools mean failing pupils. It then suggests failing adults and failing parents leading to more failing pupils. Some will climb out of this ongoing train-wreck, but many more will not. Many DO not.

The State should not get in the way of opportunity. The State should work to remove barriers to opportunity it has created. The State monopoly on education, LEAs and the shortage of good places and good schools created by this system is standing in the way of opportunity, in the way of anxious parents and potential talent in our young people.

It is counter intuitive to create more capacity than you require, but that is precisely what is needed in schools. We need a surplus of good schools and good school places to enable parents to pick a good school near to home, with enrolled siblings or their child's friends. A surplus of good schools will make parents happier about moving home to seek work or be closer to work to avoid extended commutes. A State monopoly will not go about creating new schools when existing school capacity of whatever standard is sufficient for the pupils enrolled. Bad schools will always have children under such a system because all the other schools are full. The incentive for the school should be "improve or die", i.e. improve or find yourselves turning up to empty classes and ever declining funding. To peform this, a surplus of good schools is the simplest and organic way. Enable more schools to be formed outside the State system, not "permit", not "allow" but not stand in the way of more independent schools and the parents will have more choice and the worst schools will empty by themselves. The best teachers will be paid more and more kids will end up at a good school near to home, nearer to their parents workplaces, which cannot be a bad thing for home life and thus further improve the prospects§ for young people.

Vouchers are one way to achieve this.

§ Don't you DARE say "life chances".

9 September 2007

Coercion, coercion, coercion

Recently I reminded readers of the mediocracy blog why the 'educational conscription' issue is relatively important, as civil liberties controversies go (of which there are at present a not inconsiderable number).

The reason I am far more alarmed by this proposal than by (say) ID cards is that I see it as a way of surreptitiously floating a much larger and more radical notion, namely that coercion is, in principle, an acceptable way to address social problems. To some extent, I would not be particularly relieved if this proposal simply died a quiet death. It worries me that there has been so little resistance to the principle of the thing. In my view, if people don't object to this proposal on moral grounds, we could easily start to see the coercion idea applied in other areas.

Here we are, one month later, and the coercion concept seems to be gaining ground. Rather than oppose the idea — as we might hope from our opposition party — the Conservatives seem to have got a taste for it. First, we have a plan to make teenagers attend six-week community service projects, though Mr Cameron seems to have been persuaded (at least for the moment) to use the carrot of a cash reward, rather than the stick of compulsion, as inducement for attendance. Second, we have plans to force failing primary pupils to attend summer school or even resit an entire year.

Of course, we had hints of this aspect of new-style 'Conservatism' when Mr Cameron was appointed. The compulsory community service idea was first floated in January 2006, when we were told that it was a way of improving social cohesion.

Clearly, coercion is on the agenda. It's not limited to the main political parties, either. I get a sense of an authoritarian backlash brewing, as a reaction to all the ills which supposedly 'liberal' polices have generated. For example, there was recently a suggestion in the Telegraph that children should be forced to eat school lunches.

For the moment, coercion may seem to be limited to the under-18s, though we already have pending legislation for compulsory medication. Once coercion becomes seen as an acceptable remedy, however, I expect to see proposals to extend it to over-18s. Compulsory voting is an obvious possible area of application, but I can think of several others. (I am not going to mention them, because I don't want to give lovers of authoritarianism any ideas.)

Incidentally, the post that started this campaign blog — "What is wrong with you people?" — still gets an unusually high number of hits, six months after the event. (I have no idea why.)

3 September 2007

Spending without result

Cross-posted from Burning our Money, the ever-watchful Wat Tyler reminds us once again, with the help of hard data, what an incredible sink for money the state education system has become. It demonstrates the folly of supposing that just because more money is poured into "education" (or "health", "childcare", etc.) the extra spending necessarily makes things better. It can just as easily make things worse. The logic "more money = better service" is as crude as "more years = more learnt", and neither correlation is likely to be particularly high in a system in which there is no real consumer power.

Special plugholes for public spending surges

Education, education, education.

And as everyone should have understood, that was going to cost money, money, money.

Since Labour came to power, spending on Britain's state schools has more than doubled. Last year they spent £44.7bn, up from £22.2bn in 1996-97 (see here and prior PESAs). Even adjusting for general inflation, the increase is over 60%, a massive uplift.

Fair enough you say. That's what the voters wanted.

But spending money is easy. What we haven't had is the results.

Let's just recap the latest revelations:
  • Pre-primary skills among five-year olds are unchanged despite a £21bn programme to improve them (see this blog)
  • 3Rs skills among seven-year olds are stalled, with eg 20% failing to reach the minimum expected standard in writing (see here)
  • 3Rs skills among eleven-year olds are stalled, with 60% failing to reach the minimum expected standard in reading, writing, and maths (see this blog and this)
  • Core attainment among fourteen-year olds is also stalled, with nearly 40% failing to reach the minimum expected standard in English, maths, and science (see here)
  • At GCSE 54% still fail to gain 5 A-C grades including both English and Maths (see excellent Chris Woodhead article here)
  • A Level results continue to soar, but we now know they are two whole grades easier than twenty years ago (see this blog)

Once again- as if we needed any further proof- the dirigiste techniques of Stalinist central planning and tractor output targets have simply failed to deliver.

And today, we have an update on a key reason behind the failure: the escalating crisis in head teacher recruitment. Suitably qualified candidates are simply not putting themselves forward, because they don't fancy being the stressed-out disempowered middle management sandwich meat stuck between the commissars and the parents. And who can blame them?

We've blogged this many times (eg see here), but until now the main problem has been in secondary schools. It's now spread to primaries, with more than one-third of schools being unable to appoint after advertising the post.

As we've noted before, this problem simply doesn't exist in the independent sector. There, head teachers are much more firmly in charge of their schools. And they answer directly to the paying customers rather than indirectly through those ignorant self-serving spineless commissars.

The bottom line?

We're now spending 60% more in real terms on our schools, but our children's education is no better than it was. Indeed, given that schools now routinely teach to the test, it may very well be worse (see this blog).

Wat Tyler

16 August 2007

On The A-level Results

This is my take on the A-level results, cross-posted on The ThunderDragon.

The A-level results are again the Best Year Ever (Until Next Year), with more than 25% of the grades given being As. There is no doubt that those who got As worked hard for them, but when the number of top grades is at 25.3%, there is no doubt that something is wrong somewhere. When this is broken down into subject, there is a surprising development - 43.7% of maths A-levels given an A grade, compared with 14% of those in media studies. So media studies isn't the nice easy Mickey Mouse course - instead, maths is, it would appear. However, that 96.9% got a passing grade isn't a bad thing at all. The only issue I have is with the number of top grades.

To say that the exams were easier is a bit of a cop out. I doubt that the level of the questions in the exams have changed all that much, but what is far more likely to have changed is the marking schemes. Unlike the "back in my day" brigade [who used to have have to walk five miles to school each day, rain or shine, and it was up-hill both ways] who claim that A-levels are easier because they had "proper exams" rather than modules and coursework. But all those co-called "proper exams" ever did was mean that you crammed to pass them and then soon forgot everything again. Modules and coursework are more work but stretched out over a longer period of time, so you actually have to learn the subject, not just cram for the exam - the exam on which the last two years of your life, and your future, hung. The different system, in itself, does not and cannot account for the huge grade increases.

A-level grades have been increasing for the last 25 years. This does not mean that the youth of today are more intelligent than yesteryears, but neither does it rule that out. Even so, to claim that increased intelligence of youths is the prime or only reason for this is patently absurd. Certainly part of the increases can be put down to an improvement in teaching methods, and part of it could be explained away by an estimated increase in intelligence - but that more than a quarter of all grades is an A can mean nothing other than something is wrong with the system.

The students that have taken the exams have tried their best, like generations have before them, and they should be commended for it. It is the government and the examination boards who have let them down by quite obviously fiddling with the figures somewhere along the line. Either they mark them easier or they have lowered the grade thresholds. None of this can be blamed on the students who have simply done their best to get their qualifications.

What can or should be done about it? First of all, instead of giving universities just the grades, they should be given the full score sheet - this will allow them to actively select the best. The idea of adding an A* grade to the A-levels is necessary - to shift the grades in any other way would do nothing more than hurt the students who are yet to come.

The problem with the issue over A-levels is that people see high levels of As and think "oh, they must be easy if so many are getting As!" - but they're wrong. They're not easy. I would doubt that they are any easier than they ever were. The results may appear high to us, but that is not because the exams themselves are necessarily easier, but because the government has moved the goal posts.

The ThunderDragon

13 August 2007

Some mistake, surely?

It appears the government needs to show a little more consistency about the ages at which young people are to be regarded as having sufficient maturity to make important decisions.

On the one hand, those aged 17 are considered by our education ministry (the newly-styled "Department for Children, Schools and Families") as being too young to decide whether or not to continue in full-time education.

On the other hand, 16-year-olds are apparently considered old enough to act as police officers, since two of them have just been appointed to this role by Thames Valley Police. (Source: Daily Mail)

9 August 2007

More Common Sense

Somewhat less surprised to see an excellent article on Conservative Home (hat-tip to Tony), from one of the Tory Party's more appealing Parliamentary Candidates, Louise Bagshawe. As before, a snippet to encourage you to read the whole thing:

Let’s review, then, as we used to do at the end of my German lessons.

a) Examination grades have been inflated
b) Basic subjects required for an all-round education, such as history and languages, are being dropped
c) The syllabus that remains has been dumbed down

And, worst of all,

d) even with these easier standards, 4 out of 10 11 year olds do not have the basics of literacy and numeracy.

Is this an accident? Or is it due to Labour pushing a stale ideology that puts (discredited) theories ahead of children and their needs?

And they still want to force our children to spend another 2 years suffering this nonsense?

Letter on way to Mr Willetts.


Common Sense in the Indy?

To my utter astonishment, the employers of the ridiculous Johann Hari yesterday published a spectacularly sensible piece on the current state of British education. Deborah Orr's article can be found here.

I will give you her final paragraph as a taster but, really, read the whole thing:

It is difficult to over-stress just what a corrosive effect this long-running stand-off has had, chiefly on children's own feelings about education. It is widely acknowledged that the most terrifying malaise in our school is a pervasive anti-education attitude among pupils. Being a "nerd" is every bit as suspect as being "special needs". Average is what pupils aim for, and no wonder. It is what they are taught is expected of them. It is the benchmark against which they are measured and tested, from the start, at every level.
And they want to force our kids to spend another 2 years suffering this nonsense?


3 August 2007

The problem with schooling

OK, your humble Devil is finally writing something for this fine site; by why has he failed to do so before? Well, it's relatively simple really: being privately educated at a well-known British public school, it was taken for granted that I would stay at school until 18 and, really, I didn't fret about it.

As it happens, I am not suited to structured learning, becoming swiftly bored with learning things that I have no interest in. I have learnt more of history, economics, politics and sociology since I started blogging than I ever did at school. To be sure, my science grounding is far superior to that of most people, and I have found both French to be a boon (although Latin has been far more useful over a wider scope).

As for maths, well, I can obviously add, subtract, multiply and do basic division (I have nothing close to my brother's almost terrifying facility for nunmbers), but most people should be able to pick up these skills by osmosis. What else has been useful? Well, in my political warblings, it has been useful to understand the difference between mean and median. Bizarrely, the only things that I have used are quadratic equations (in estimating box-office returns for the forty or show amateur theatre shows that I have produced) and trigonometry (Desktop Publishing programmes aren't very well set up for dealing with triangular shapes).

However, what has always set me in good stead was the fact that I was always taught the underlying principles that governed the facts that we were taught. This is particularly important as it allows one to continue learning in later life; without being taught the underpinnings of the ideas, theories and facts that one learns, one can never extrapolate into unknown areas.

This is what is so very dangerous about the trend in recent years of teaching to the test: not only are the products of our education system pig-ignorant, able only to answer the woolly questions asked in our increasingly debased exams, but they are then unable to understand the principles that form the basis of the world around them. This means that the bar to further learning is set exceptionally, and sometimes unconquerably, high.

The politicians, of course, do not care; they have deliberately skewed the quality of the education system to be judged solely on exam grades, simply because these are easily manipulated. The increasing cries of protests about the educational standards of those reaching university has been easily quelled by changing the system of university funding; the complaints from the business leaders about the low educational standards of those with degrees is easily swept under the carpet as the whining of greedy men desperate for the state to subsidise their businesses.

But the end result is a nation of sorely under-educated people being taught, in the main, by equally under-educated teachers. It would be, for instance, almost impossible to return to teaching English grammar in schools because the vast majority of teachers (in the state sector at least) do not understand the principles themselves.

The corruption of our education system has already had severe repercussions and more will follow.

What has this to do with the so-called "educational conscription"? Why on earth shouldn't people be forced to be in education until the age of 18 if we decree that they must already be so until 16?

Well, for a start, it is a massive waste of time. Last year, about 147,000 pupils failed to get any GCSEs higher than a grade D. This included 28,000—almost one in 20—who failed to gain a qualification of any kind. It is quite obvious to anyone who has taken the ridiculously easy GCSEs that attempting to force these people into an A Level qualification, debased though they also are, is totally pointless; they may as well go to work.

However, it also means that those slower developers, who may be uninterested in learning whilst young, find it very difficult to return to any kind of education. Further, because all education is now geared merely to passing an exam rather than actually gaining knowledge, the qualifications that may be gained are in themselves utterly pointless. Not to mention, of course, that by the time that any 16 year old drop-out may wish to return, the financial bar may well be too high.

Quite apart from the massive overhaul that is required, what we should allow is a flexibility in education. For sure, teach people up to 18: we do this anyway. However, we should allow people who drop out at 16 to rejoin the education system if they desire to do so (something that UKIP has proposed in its Education Policy).

But we should not force people to cut their earnings by compelling them to remain in an education system that does not benefit them. The earning of knowledge is both important and personally gratifying, but making people stay within a system wherein this does not happen is not only pointless but wrong: what our system should be doing is to teach people the underpinnings of the world around them, so that they may continue to live and learn at their own pace.

Anything else is failure.

31 July 2007

Prolonging The Agony Of School

Cross-posted, with permission, from the ever excellent "Burning Our Money" blog, an analysis of just how much this appallingly stupid idea is (but note, he really doesn't like the provenance of some of the figures) likely to cost us in additional government spending:

New designs for the staff room

Raise the school leaving age to 18? Teachers think it's a shocking idea. Geraldine Everett, chairman of the Professional Association of Teachers, says:

“Here is a Government that has toyed with the idea of lowering the voting age to 16 in order to promote a greater sense of citizenship among our young people. Yet it proposes to extend compulsory education or training to 18, to compel the already disaffected to, in their perception, prolong the agony.

To make them conscripts is likely to reinforce failure, leading to even greater disaffection. Enforcement could lead to mass truancy, further disruption to other learners and staff, maybe even needless criminalisation if enforcement measures are imposed.”

Of course, the commissars will not listen to the teachers. Piff! What do they know?

Instead they will impose yet another top-down half-baked Plan to tick yet another box- moving Britain up the league table of "educational participation".

But as we all surely know, truancy is already a major problem, particularly in the tough inner city schools where raising the leaving age will cause the worst damage. One pupil in five already plays truant. And there is no top-down government Plan that can fix it: Labour's much vaunted anti-truancy programme has already cost us £1.5bn but has been a total flop, with truancy hitting record levels (eg see this blog).

And what will it all cost? Ah well, the commissars don't really want to discuss that. The white paper Raising Expectations: staying in education and training post-16 bangs on at huge length about the supposed- though unquantified- benefits, but virtually nothing about the costs (cf the cost-free Newsom Report which ushered in comprehensivisation- see this blog). Last week, Schools Minister Jim Knight (yes, him again) would only say:

"We plan to raise the participation age to 17 from September 2013 and 18 from September 2015. This will not involve additional costs over current plans in 2007-08, 2008-09 and 2009-10. We estimate that it will incur additional capital costs of £28.2 million in 2010-11 and £19.7 million in 2011-12, and additional training costs of £0.2 million in 2010-11 and £0.5 million in 2011-12."

So that's about £50m.

But of course there's much more. The Local Government Association tracked down some further figures (taken from the department's Regulatory Impact Assessment). They run through them, adding their own commentary:
  • £593m pa once ‘steady state’ is reached- to include ongoing staff and running costs; but as is so often the case, the RIA "does not explain how this is calculated"

  • £50m pa for "tracking, attempting to engage and enforcing the duty (including bringing any prosecutions)"; that doesn't sound nearly enough given that local authorities will need to hire Gomulka Associates to "enforce duties" on the North Peckham Estate, say

  • £6.7m pa for Attendance Orders for young people failing to participate as part of a civil process; an amazingly precise figure, but again, "there is no explanation as to how this is calculated"

  • £3.38m pa legal costs- many kids won't want to be enforced, so there'll be lots of criminal court action: legal aid costs between £0.25m and £0.7m, court costs up to £2.5m, plus £0.18m aid for disgruntled hoodies sueing local authorities; all amazingly precise figures that can't be worth the paper they're written on

  • £90m pa on additional educational maintenance awards

  • £121m for additional staff training- presumably that's training in fending off knife attacks armed only with a stick of chalk

  • £81m on additional buildings, including strongpoint panic rooms for teachers

Tot it all up and you get to set-up costs of £202m and ongoing costs of £743.08m.

And if you believe that, you'll believe anything.

You can sign a petition against raising the leaving age here.

Wat Tyler

Comment: Appreciating that Wat's focus is on the cost to the taxpayer, I would add this does not correctly sum the cost to the economy. There will also be a number of additional costs, not least the opportunity cost of putatively productive young adults sat in classrooms, ignoring teacher or, as ThunderDragon pointed out, skiving off, rather than being at work. S-E

30 July 2007

Educational Conscription Will Cause Mass Truancy

Cross-posted from The ThunderDragon:

Labour's plan to force children to stay in school until 18 is a bad idea, and it is now claimed by Geraldine Everett, chairman of the Professional Association of Teachers that it will cause "mass truancy":

"Extending the school leaving age is a potential minefield if not handled sensitively...
Here is a Government that has toyed with the idea of lowering the voting age to 16 in order to promote a greater sense of citizenship amongst our young people.
Yet it proposes to extend compulsory education or training to 18, to compel the already disaffected to, in their perception, prolong the agony...
Enforcement could lead to mass truancy, further disruption to other learners and staff, maybe even needless criminalisation if ‘enforcement measures’ are imposed."
I have argued against this plan many times - back in November when it was first proposed, in January when it put forward as a plan, and again in March when it was released as a green paper. This group blog, Educational Conscription, was also set up to argue against the plan.

Many school leavers go into work at minimum wage levels and work their way up - supermarket/retail work being a prime example. If they have to provide specific and tailored accredited training to these people, I doubt many shops will bother.

Quite simply, those who want to continue to learn already continue to stay on in school. It doesn't cost them any money, unlike university, so finances play little part in their decisions - that will be down to not wanting to go to school any more.

Those who want to study, will. Those who don't will either go and disrupt everyone else who want to learn or just play truant, and face a fine and possible criminal record - something that is unlikely to aid them in getting a job. Instead of making them stay in education now, make it easier for them to return to adult education, when they want to learn.


24 July 2007

"Skills gap" rhetoric - but where's the beef?

A couple of months ago I wrote:

The idea that, in the words of the Green Paper, the UK economy “will increasingly demand more highly skilled employees” is regularly trotted out to justify the relentless expansion, at the taxpayer’s expense, of “education”. As far as I’m aware, no political party now questions (or dares to question) this principle. But it strikes me as hopelessly undefined, unanalysed, unsupported by hard data, and probably false.

Could someone please direct me to some actual cogent reasoning in favour of expanding state-financed education? Something less handwaving than the usual “New Economy … different skills … more training … cannot compete”?
My hopes were raised by a Financial Times Survey published last week entitled “Understanding the Skills Gap”. Surely the FT would finally provide some cogent economic arguments to explain the nature of the skills gap, and why it calls for additional government intervention. Not just the usual handwaving stuff we get from the other broadsheets (another dose was provided on Sunday, by David Smith).

Sadly, it was not to be. Apart from alluding repeatedly to the Leitch Report, no useful analytical arguments were made in clarifying the nature of the “skills gap”, beyond the fact that the UK has a basic literacy and numeracy problem.

At some point I suppose I shall have to wade through the LR itself – when I have time. (Someone like me, i.e. without a pro-state bias, should be being paid to do so, but I doubt they are.) Meanwhile, here is a selection of the best would-be pearls of wisdom from the FT Survey.
Britain fails to make the OECD top 10 for basic literacy and numeracy skills … [or for] graduate skills.
No surprise there. The basic problem is, many people emerging from state schools at the age of 16 still haven't learnt how to write or add up. No reason to think another two years of the same will do it. But what are "graduate skills"? We are not told.
For the economy to continue growing, UK workers … need to be better equipped to do their jobs. [No further analysis is provided, so this is a fairly vacuous statement.]
The Director-General of British Chambers of Commerce: “As I go round the country, every company I speak to is using as much migrant labour as it can get hold of. It is always for the same reasons: workers from Poland come with far better skills and a better attitude.” This suggests the real skills gap is partly one of mindset. A problem hardly likely to be solved by forcing pupils to stay on even longer in environments in which they would otherwise not choose to remain.
To be among the top eight most skilled countries in the world, the UK will need: 2.3m more people with literacy skills; 5.1m more with numeracy skills ... and about 5.5m with experience of higher education.
Literacy, numeracy — these are self-explanatory. But what is the benefit of "higher education" supposed to be? No explanation is given.

Employer body SEMTA tells us that:
70 per cent of jobs where there are skills shortages are among technical and engineering skills or craft, operator and technician occupations, with the biggest problem in machine operation.
Nothing which two years of extra compulsory schooling will help with. What about compulsory training in those occupations? Possibly, if you believe (as Labour seems to be starting to) that market failures of this kind are best solved by means of coercion.

SEMTA also tells us that
most companies now provide some sort of induction or conversion programme for new employees - especially recent graduates - to get used to what the company needs in terms of teamwork, communication and problem-solving.
For this, try reading: "Most companies are now forced to provide a programme which remedies the deficiences of GCSE education, and to get people used to the idea that businesses — unlike some comprehensive schools — are not anarchic hellholes of unruliness and despair, or X-generation enclaves like some so-called universities."

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development reports: "Our members are reporting generally negative experiences of the government institutions and bodies set up to promote skills." Asked to say something positive about the Leitch Report, the CIPD can apparently only come up with: "it is less prescriptive than some that we have seen in the past."

The Institute of Employment Studies agrees that "so far a lot of employers are sceptical of the government's efforts to close the skills gap and most are fairly indifferent."

A single dissident sceptical note by a journalist about the Leitch Report is sounded by the FT’s Martin Wolf (give that man a medal for cutting through bull):
The Leitch report looks like just another in a series of proposals to remedy the failures of schooling.
Yes, but the report is being used to justify another two years of that same schooling, by depriving seventeen-year olds of their right to decide how to live their lives; rather than considering a far less extreme solution: abolishing state education. Well, it's less extreme, morally speaking.

11 July 2007

Good news from the Great Clunking Fist?

There seems to be some movement in the great Brown programme. Clearly, 'tis the BBC, so not the most trustworthy pronouncer on the doings of our ruling class but:

There will be an "educational opportunity" Bill so all young people can stay in education or training to the age of 18, Gordon Brown told MPs.

Is a lot better than "must stay in education ...". It is the compulsion that is evil, not the opportunity or, even, if it is appropriate, encouragement or incentives for learning. Although, in my opinion, some people are better for getting a decent taste of work and then coming back to learning in a couple of years, as per the previous post (or decades, for some :).


9 July 2007

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll

I have been deferring posting here as I have been waiting to chat with a couple of Senior school teachers and a Head that I know reasonably well. The opportunity has not arisen, however I did talk to someone from one of the examining boards. Whilst any increase in papers taken will obviously be good for business, they reflected that they personally couldn't wait to leave school at Sixteen and get a real job. My Wife was of a similar view, joining British Telecom at Sixteen, going through an apprenticeship and then being sponsored by BT to do an IT degree in later years when her abilities shone through.

Sometimes youngsters don't really show their potential in their Teens or lack the maturity to take education seriously.

I give a final example- myself. Whilst always being in the top stream through the fairly bog-standard Comprehensive I attended, by the time I reached Sixth Form I was more interested in Music, drink, doing Discos, my part time stage crew job and general stagecraft than the drudgery of Maths, Physics & Chemistry "A" Levels. I coasted through the two years and failed big time, closing some doors but opening others.

I was one of the bright kids and I didn't really want to be there (although I did assume I'd be going to University). Should we have forced the other 250 kids to stay on under duress? We were the first wave of the ROSLA genration and I can remember a number of disaffected Fifth Formers who were simply disruptive because they had no desire to be there at all. The troublemakers were collectively known as ROSLAS...

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll was my downfall- and also my renaissance...

25 June 2007

Random Inequality

Googling for "return to grammar schools" (with quotation marks) produces 2060 results, almost all negative - NO return to Grammar schools. Googling for "return to secondary modern schools" (again, with quotes) produces no results at all.

I know this is an imprecise survey, but it's still meaningful. We live in a society in which it is unremarkable that people should say "No more good schools", but nobody should say "No more bad schools". As it has turned out, the comprehensive system has actually ensured that now almost every English child goes to a Secondary Modern.

It seems that the "almost" in that last sentence rankles with some. Brighton Council has said it will allocate children to schools by lottery, to prevent Middle Class parents making a school outperform others in the area by moving within its catchment area. There have also been calls at the national level to force independent schools to admit a quota of disruptive pupils.

These initiatives will have a predictable effect: to make good schools worse without making bad schools better. The arrival of a handful of intelligent, well-motivated pupils in a school with disruptive pupils can have no effect whatsoever; the arrival of a few disruptive pupils in a high-performing school will ruin the education of every child on the roll.

Making schools worse does not make things equally bad for everybody. The wealthy can still hire tutors, send their children abroad or otherwise ensure they have a good education. As the rest of the population slides further behind, the gap widens even further. Thus, these initiatives designed to further equality have precisely the opposite effect.

What makes this inexcusable is that we did have a period, ending in the late 1970s, when social mobility was higher, and this was the consequence of the Grammar School system and the Direct Grant. So we actually know, experimentally, that reversing the current education policies would create greater social mobility and improve standards - for everybody: A report published through the LSE reviewed the real life laboratory experiment that the continuation of Grammar Schools (with reformed entrance arrangements) in Northern Ireland up to the present has provided. It shows that:

Using administrative data before and after the reform, we find that the open enrolment reform of 1989 (which affected the 1979 birth cohort) had a clear impact in Northern Ireland relative to England. A 15 percentage point increase in the number of pupils enabled to attend grammar school (at the age of 11) was accompanied by shifts of similar magnitude in the number achieving five or more GCSEs at A*-C and one or more A-level. This suggests a strong causal effect of expanding the more academic track on overall educational achievement.
Although this research cannot be interpreted as evaluating the overall effects of a comprehensive or selective (‘tracked’) system of education, it is an example of where widening access to the more academic track has generated positive net effects. It illustrates the high price that pupils pay for being excluded from the academic track, even when they are some way down the ability distribution within their birth cohort.

The study also provides clear evidence that selection into the more academic track really has a causal impact – the improvement in educational outcomes is not simply an artefact of the selection process.
On Radio 4 this morning, John Humphreys interviewed David Cameron about a Sutton Trust report that showed social mobility has declined. A child born in 1970 was less mobile than one born in 1958. This can be paraphrased as follows: A child born into a society with academic selection and centres of excellence open to all on merit alone had a greater chance of social mobility than one born into today's Comprehensive system.

Humphreys advocated the Brighton lottery appeal. Cameron disagreed, but said there should be "No return to the 11 plus". "A lottery is completely fair," remonstrated Humphreys.

In fact, a lottery would be (almost) completely random. Random is not the same as fair and it's strange that anybody should conflate the two.

But it's much more strange that neither man advocated a return to a system of education that we know - from experience - works better than the present one.

It's also plain that when the established media and both major parties advocate educational policies we know, from experience - from experiment - can only fail, we're in trouble.

20 June 2007

Infantilise the Adult. Children Made Adults.

I am very concerned that schoolchildren are being involved in teacher interviews.

While the government sets about infantilising the adult population, there is this perverse mentality of denying that children are children by giving them a kind of faux-adult authority. There is a worrying alarm bell that goes off in the back of my mind when I hear of such things. It is like there is a perverse and even perverted "trojan horse" at work. Frankly, it has echoes of the Red Guard in China that was used to break the authority and respect in the child-parent and child-teacher relationship, leaving only the child-State relationship in place.

The NASUWT are not keen on the idea, either. I agree with their stance that it undermines and deprofessionalises teachers. Children are not a teacher's peer-group. They are NOT the "customers" either, even though this appears to be the implication. That position is held by the school, its Governers and the wider body of parents.

The question I have, though, is where this is coming from? Who is drivng it? I cannot see that it is coming from teachers or headteachers. LEAs? It seems one body is partly responsible - Peoples School Soviets School Councils UK. This is an "independent charity", though I suspect it may receive most of its funding from the Dfes. It appears to want to make it law (oh, the Sociofascist hand at work) that all schools be required to have a School Council. Question: If it is such a good idea, why the need for law?

I feel it might be worth digging deeper into just who are these people. They may do some things right, but the way they appear to go about it - this fake independence - gives me the creeps.

13 June 2007

"Make hard work trendy" says Government

Guest author Bel on another attempt by the Labour government to enforce compatibility between what happens in schools and the il-liberal cognoscenti's latest thoughts on what's ideologically desirable. Social engineering, social engineering, social engineering. People left to themselves just will not behave in the way they ought to, so they will have to be compelled ... (First published at Bel is Thinking.)

From the Daily Mail, we learn that the Department of Education has ‘called on teachers to create an atmosphere in which it is trendy to work hard and “boffins” are not bullied for being too brainy.’

Yes, teachers and all those in authority should ensure that bullying is stamped out in any place where they have a say, whether or not it is a ‘boffin’ being bullied, so that goes without saying.

I am more interested in this new assignment to teachers to ‘create an atmosphere in which it is trendy to work hard’. For starters, if any school can achieve this, it will be the first school ever on the face of the earth to do so. Schoolchildren have never, since the beginning of time, seen hard work as ‘trendy’, and they are not about to start now. In any case, I do not think they should be encouraged to do so. They are children, after all, and it is only to be expected that there are some things (school work, etc) that they will not embrace with the same enthusiasm as they do other things (playing, etc).

In addition, the notion that something must be made ‘trendy’ before we can encourage our children to do it, is something I find baffling. What about instilling in them the idea that hard work may not be fun, but in the end, it yields the fruits of success, a sense of achievement, and respect among peers? What about the idea that applying oneself to something, whatever the difficulties, frustrations, and challenges, might be something worth doing? What about the idea that sometimes we may not feel like doing something, but that self-discipline and dedication, irrespective of the views of others, are values to be exalted in every case? These are the lessons we should be teaching our children.

By trying to get teachers to pretend that hard work is ‘trendy’, the Department of Education is sending out a message that nothing is worth doing unless one can get superficial pleasure from it. They are preaching to children, telling them that they can attain things in life on their own terms. This is grossly irresponsible. Children do not rule the world, and sooner or later, they will learn that ‘trendiness’ does not make things happen. Far better to put trendiness in its real place, as a sometimes fun, often times diverting, ineffectual concept. In the real business of life, there is very little room for trendiness. There are many issues in this life in which the views of children are irrelevant. They need to be told that some things (eg hard work) are necessary, whether or not they are trendy. And they need to be told why.

Children should be encouraged to reach out for the tray of goodies that life can offer. However, with all this ‘trendiness’ talk, what the Department of Education is doing is kneeling at the feet of children and offering them the world on their (the children’s) own terms. Instead of encouraging them to aim high, and reach for a world outside their own, the Department is reshaping the valuable things in life so that they accord with the fleeting values of children. This I find surprising, and somewhat saddening.


27 May 2007

Edukashun, Edookayshen, Education

Tom Paine highlights the politically fashionable, but misplaced, hostility to grammar schools. So if we are to have compulsory education for 17-year-olds, it looks increasingly likely that (for those whose parents are unable to scrimp for private) it will be within comprehensives — the only model which can pass prevailing ideological criteria. (First published at The Last Ditch.)

Link: Willetts must have known it would horrify Party.

All three comment pieces in the Daily Telegraph today [17 May 2007] were about the Tory Party and grammar schools. Alice Thomson says it best however, with these words

The Tories seem to have ditched what they always held dear - a belief that those who worked hard and were talented would be rewarded - to embrace the socialist principle that all must have prizes
Boris Johnson, usually the Conservative Party's voice of sanity, for all his Eton-nurtured capacity for intellectual wrangling is unable to save the party from Willett's appalling gaffe. It was a speech that did not need to be made. No potential Conservative voter is pleased by it. Secretly, I suspect that, despite the huge opportunity presented for mischief - a goal so open that even the talentless Prescott couldn't miss it - few Labourites are either.

For Conservatives, health is the third rail of British politics. In our hearts, we know that only Labour could ever reform the National Health Service. The Conservatives have only to mention it for voters to panic. One day, God willing, it will be Labour's destiny to clean up the mess it made of British healthcare. The last 10 years have simply shown us that it is not yet that day.

That is not true for education. Comprehensive schools are a greater disaster for Labour voters than for Conservatives. The working classes of the North of England have no hope of buying themselves either into a private school or the catchment area of a less foul State school. A Conservative government could, by reforming schools, do something for them that Labour never can, because education is for them as the NHS is for us. They are secretly waiting for us to solve the problem.

Until Willetts put his foot in his mouth, that hope alone kept alive minority Tory votes in Labour heartlands that could one day have been built upon. No-one even seems to have noticed that many of our immigrants in the past 20 years are from communities, such as the Indians and the Chinese, who value education much more highly than the native English. Their votes are up for grabs too. Immigrants are naturally more aspirational; naturally more Tory.

Boris tell us that the end of Grammar schools was politically inevitable in a democracy because;
it became an arithmetical and electoral certainty, over time, that the rejects outnumbered the successful
What tosh. He should not fall into the elitist trap of describing those who failed to get into Grammar Schools as "rejects." In doing so he defames the work of generations of dedicated teachers who were able to provide excellent education to those who went to Secondary Modern schools; education carefully targetted to their abilities.

I was taught by some of them. I took the 11+ but my area went comprehensive that year and I was never told the results. Instead, I was sent to the local secondary modern school - rebadged as a comprehensive. There were some superb teachers there, doing their best. They were as bemused by me as no doubt the Grammar School teachers in the next town were by some of their new intake. However, they had long shaped the destinies of the majority of children in my town. Their former pupils were respectable, hard-working and better-educated than their children and grandchildren are today. They are the ones failed by Anthony "I will close every fucking grammar school" Crosland's public school ultra-leftism, every bit as much as people like me.

As for the electoral arithmetic, what defeatism on Boris's part! The kind of ignorant chavs who think that selective schools are wrong because their little Shane, Wayne or Sheena will never pass an exam will not only never vote Conservative, but will probably never vote at all. They are irrelevant. It's all about triangulation, Boris. Margaret's policy to steal Labour votes was to sell council houses. Everyone was astonished by the aspirational instincts she unleashed in the Labour heartlands. Your equivalent could be the restoration of educational opportunity to the working class.

No-one, in their hearts, truly believes in comprehensive schools. Don't listen to what Labour politicians say about it. Look at what they do when it comes to their own children. Cherie Blair, Diane Abbott, Ruth Kelly and Polly Toynbee would be secretly delighted if selective State education was brought back. Of course they won't say so. They will kick, scream and defame, but so what? Triangulate them and move on.

Willetts has a point to precisely this extent. It is best not to hark back to the past. We should not speak of "Grammar Schools" or "the 11+". We need new branding and some less crude (and less final) selection mechanism. If he will apply his two brains to devising such a system; one that Kent Conservatives would accept instead of their Grammar Schools, he will be on to an election-winner.

More than anything else, this is what the Conservatives can do for Britain's future. No nation can long survive the huge waste of human potential represented by the present system. To compete in the world, we need to maximise the potential of every pupil. Even the Socialists know it in their hearts. Even as they ranted against us, they would be secretly, guiltily glad that we had saved their grandchildren from Crosland's evil legacy.

Tom Paine

18 May 2007

Boys are into just 160 books?

Alan Johnson has published a list of 160 books in an attempt to get boys to read more for pleasure and to keep up with girls. The £600,000 project is giving every secondary school the chance to twenty books from the list for free. That's good, except for one thing. It is a government made list.

'Boys into Books', as the scheme is called, is aimed mainly at boys aged between 11 and 14 because "research suggests boys enjoy reading at primary school but lose interest after the age of 11." The list includes authors such as Philip Pullman, Anthony Horowitz, Terry Pratchett and Jeremy Clarkson but is lacking any J. K. Rowling (who has through her Harry Potter series - book 7 out on 21st July! - alone got many children into reading), Charles Dickens and has only one Mark Twain - Alan Johnson's favourite, Tom Sawyer.

The idea is a good one. Boys should be encouraged to read more as it will improve the quality of their English and provide them with non-electrical means of entertainment. But it is flawed in so far as that it is a government-produced list. Why not instead just give each the chance to get twenty books of their own choice? Schools and teachers are far better placed to make the decisions on what the children in their school are going to want to read and what is going to motivate them.

Yes, you can say that there are 160 on the list, a large enough choice, surely? Yes there is, and no there isn't. Why are these 160 books so far superior in getting boys to read? They're not. If schools had the choice of any twenty books they wanted, with this list as a 'guide', then that would be better for all. Some school libraries may already have all of these books, after all.

The books on the list may have been "drawn up by librarians, who had carefully researched what books excited this age group of boys" but it's not the be-all and end-all of it. This programme, when limited to 160 books, is not much more than a publicity stunt and a chance to grab good media headlines. Just give schools more money to spend on books aimed at boys and the best outcome possible will arise for them - but that just wouldn't get Johnson so many headlines, would it?

The ThunderDragon

Sources: The Times, BBC, The Telegraph

14 May 2007

More on How To Sell Conscription

Guest author Paul on how coercion will be marketed to appear cool and fun.

In a previous post, I looked at one tactic used by the government to sell these malignant proposals; namely, to persuade people that not to accept the plans would constitute a shameful neglect of helpless young people. Fabian has since highlighted another prong in the governmental attack — attempting to convince the populace that the sky will fall in if the proposals are scrapped; that Britain will cease to be competitive and will sink inexorably into economic decline.

The methods thus far have been negative — why it would be A Bad Thing to reject the proposals. Has the government got anything a little bit more positive to offer?

Well, this goverment site dealing with post-sixteen education is suggestive of the way in which educational conscription will be sold.

Firstly, there's the mention of choice: currently one does actually have the choice to sever ties with state education at sixteen, but if conscription goes ahead, there will be no such choice. Expect to see increased use of the words "choice", "options" etc.

Secondly, there's the bribe. Advertised immediately below the title of the page. This'll probably be retained to soften the blow of conscription.

Finally, just look at the page: although it is meant simply to be a government information site, it has the appearance of a "lifestyle" brochure — happy, smiling faces; people dancing, people laughing. Forced post-sixteen education is something you're gonna love! And notice there at the bottom of the page, the acme of lifestyle choices. University. The final enticement is the prospect of living the student dream: never mind the colossal expense or just how likely you are to use that degree — no, you'll belong to the best social identity group of all. Incredibly there's even a page devoted to promoting that package holiday for chattering-class youth, the gap year. And promoting is the word, here: follow the link — there's no hint that taking a gap year might not always be such a wonderful idea.

Choices, sweeteners and unending fun. Oh my! Conscription has never looked so appealing.

2 May 2007

Does the UK need “more skills”?

The idea that, in the words of the Green Paper, the UK economy “will increasingly demand more highly skilled employees” is regularly trotted out to justify the relentless expansion, at the taxpayer’s expense, of “education”.

As far as I’m aware, no political party now questions (or dares to question) this principle. But it strikes me as hopelessly undefined, unanalysed, unsupported by hard data, and probably false.

It depends, of course, what you mean by “skills”. We could probably do these days with slightly better language and basic maths abilities among young adults. But those abilities aren’t what are acquired (or ought to be acquired) in post-GCSE or higher education. They used to be acquired in primary education, but are now apparently beyond the abilities of most state school teachers.

So the global economy is changing, it is said, and the UK’s role within it is changing. The decline of UK manufacturing, and the rise of the service sector will (let us assume) continue. But that could equally be an argument for less education/training. If the sorts of skills being used in the average British job of the future have more to do with doing stuff on computers, then this might reduce the need for formal skills to be acquired in schools and universities. Chemistry? Not needed because chemicals/textiles/etc sectors have moved overseas. French? Not needed because globalisation makes English the universal language.

I’m not trying to argue for less “education”, not in this post anyway. My point is that the opposite claim has become a maxim for which no meaningful justification is apparently required.

If any specific new skills really are needed for the “new economy”, it seems to me these are likely to be IT-related. But IT is certainly not what the vast majority of undergrads are studying these days. (And to the extent they are, I doubt that what they’re learning is much use in this connection, except for specialised IT-industry jobs.) And IT is not going to be what the new population of coerced school students would be studying.

Could someone please direct me to some actual cogent reasoning in favour of expanding state-financed education? Something less handwaving than the usual “New Economy … different skills … more training … cannot compete”? Oh, and also, could there please be included some compelling reasoning why there is then also a market failure, i.e. the economy will not automatically respond to any putative need for more skills, say by the private sector offering training courses?

25 April 2007

Teaching the Wrong Message - The General Teaching Council

Some of you might recally the "Chaos in the Classroom" show on C4. Well, the General Teaching Council has their panties in a bunch over the supply teacher who filmed one of her classes - or should I say one of the 40 minute stretches where she shared a room with a group of disinterested, disruptive, rowdy teenagers.

Mrs Mason is charged, amongst other things, with professional misconduct because she blew the gaff "all of her attention should have been directed at the education of the children."

Are those on the GTC imbeciles or people with experience of communicating a valuable lesson to others?

Their stance appears to be about covering their position or the failings of their members, the failings of the New Labour administration, a QUANGO or two or it may well be just that their failing dogma has been exposed for the utter fraud it is.

Mrs Mason should be congratulated. Mrs Mason should receive an apology from the GTC for being expected to deal with a class in such disarray.

23 April 2007

Local authorities putting young people at risk

Whenever the state claims particular expertise or authority about children and young people, it's both instructive and depressing to see how well it discharges its responsibilities for those young people unfortunate enough to find themselves in its care.

I'm willing to accept that many of these children and young people have been badly damaged by the events that necessitated their going into local authority care in the first place and that this may well be a factor in their low educational achievements and the high danger they'll find themselves in trouble with the law at some stage, but it's not really an explanation for this kind of thing, reported in The Guardian today:

One in six young people leaving care is being placed in unsuitable or unsafe accommodation because of "poor" local authority planning, according to a report published today.

In some cases, vulnerable young people were put in danger by being placed in substandard housing where they were harassed and bullied by other tenants.

The young people's charity Rainer, which published the report (pdf) fears the wellbeing of many care leavers is being jeopardised by the problem.

Some found themselves living next to drug addicts and mental health patients after being placed in accommodation by the local authority. Others ended up miles away from work or training and effectively cut off from friends and other support, the study found.[...]

There is also evidence that young people feel they have no choice but to accept unsuitable accommodation or run the risk of being declared "intentionally homeless" and receiving no further help.

Becoming homeless is one of the top ten concerns of young people leaving care and up to one in three rough sleepers spent time in local authority care as a child.
Strikes me that it would be a good idea for the state to set about properly discharging its responsibilities to those children and young people for whom it is most directly responsible before it even thinks about taking charge of the lives of any others. I mean, if an individual treated his own children in so cavalier a fashion, he's not really the sort of person you'd consider an authority on what's best for your teenage children, is he?

Marxist support

One characteristic of a really bad idea is that it is bad to many different people, for many different types of reason. So it is with educational conscription. Chris Dillow posted on this issue recently, and with his permission I reproduce it in full. He was wrong about the thanks. This is a single issue campaign and I'm sure his support is very welcome.

Fabian Tassano and friends are rightly campaigning against educational conscription. They'll not thank me for this, but this is one area where libertarianism meets Marxism.
Louis Althusser called schools ideological state apparatuses. They're one of the means by which workers are indoctrinated into modes of thought favourable to the continuation of capitalism. There are (at least) four ways in which this happens:
1. Schools inculcate a culture of presenteeism. In bullying students to attend even unnecessary classes, schools prepare them for a world in which they'll have to attend factories and offices not  (just?) because it is technologically necessary to do so, but because presenteeism permits easy oversight by capitalists of workers.
2. Schools normalize alienation. The school uniform, and the fact that schools are sometimes a long way from home, send a message: your individuality must be suppressed.
3. Schools teach that success depends upon obeying rules, and subordinating yourself to authority.
4. Schools help legitimate authority. In well-run schools, teachers have both authority over students and superior knowledge. This coincidence inculcates the belief that authority is always to be identified with superior wisdom. It is only after you become a skilled worker that you realize this to be a fiction.
Now, the thing about these mechanisms is that they operate without the intention of any particular teachers. Indeed, I suspect their existence is a lucky accident, rather than anyone's design; some things are the result of human behaviour but not intention.
However, it's an accident that accords well with New Labour ideology. One feature of this - seen in its desire to get people into work and prepare them for the "challenges of globalization" - is the belief that government should operate as a human resources department. To New Labour, people must change to meet the needs of the economy, rather than vice versa.
The question is: are there any possible viable alternatives? I'm not at all sure.

Fabian then responded in the comments:

Let me subvert your four ways, if I may.

1. Mediocratic schools inculcate a culture of cultural "absenteeism", i.e. disaffection with bourgeois values, by showing a contrast between theory (enforced attendance, "education does you good") and practice (skiving, anarchy, soul-destroying boredom).

2. Mediocratic schools normalize pseudo-individualism. You are encouraged to regard yourself as the same as everyone else, although you can choose clothes/hairstyle to distinguish yourself.

3. Mediocratic schools teach that success depends upon playing in with phoneyness, and subordinating yourself to the dominant ideology.

4. Mediocratic schools help legitimate selective anti-authoritarianism, i.e against private authority figures, but in favour of state agents (social workers, doctors, etc.).

The "viable alternative" is to get the state out of education - there are *no* good economic arguments for the state to be involved.

21 April 2007


Over at Samizdata, Natalie Solent writes about compulsion in education:

I sometimes think that practically every problem, inefficiency and cruelty of our education system has at its root compulsion. People who are forced into each other's society tend not to behave well to each other. Wherever the doors are locked, be the locks visible or invisible, those inside seem to revert to the hierarchy of the baboon troop. There is still room for free will: most do no worse than learn a few habits of obsequiousness or sullenness that can be shaken off. Cho was not forced to become a mass-murderer. (In fact I see his own claim to the contrary in his video as a sort of twisted acknowledgement of this fact; the thought that "I don't have to do this" had to be actively denied.) No, he was not forced to pull the trigger - but force did play too large a part in his life. Imagine if the doors had been open for the bullied Cho Seung-hui to walk away, or if the adult Cho Seung-hui had been shown the door at the first sign of discourtesy. Imagine this was the case not just for Cho Seung-hui on certain pivotal occasions but for everyone on all occasions. Then, I think, he would have learned differently.

20 April 2007


An article over at Comment is Free explains the current approach to tackling school bullies:

Since 1999, by law, every school should have an anti-bullying strategy, extending to include times when the child is on their way to and from school. At its best, this comes from the children up, out of discussions with pupils, teachers, playground staff, parents and dinner supervisors. Workshops, assertiveness training, peer mentoring, mediation, counselling and training children to be buddies all helps. It's a time-consuming but effective business.
A comment from a teacher confirms just how effective this is:
Bullying is systemic - everyone is bullying everyone. It is the nature of many of our schools. Why do you think teachers are leaving in droves. How can we protect or teach the kids to have self respect; stand up for themselves; have self worth, when we, the teachers, are battling to keep our own heads above water.
But, at the time of typing, there is an elephant in the room. No, elephants can be overlooked by the genuinely absent-minded: they are docile, well-mannered creatures. This is more a vast herd of wildebeest stampeding across the Axminster.

Why is it that "we, the teachers, are battling to keep our own heads above water"? They are unable to keep discipline because they are unable to apply any sanctions. They may not use corporal punishment, although they are expected to tolerate at least low-level physical assault on their own persons, and they cannot control their own admissions policy and thereby exclude disruptive children. None of the Guardian comments have addressed this.

The greatest service to British education today would be the restoration of control and discipline in schools. Without it, disruptive children will continue to prevent meaningful learning. One can confidently predict, however, that this issue will continue to be drowned in meaningless flannel about "peer mentoring".

Oh yes, and by the introduction of new, grossly illiberal measures, that are ostensibly designed to improve educational achievement. Measures like educational conscription.