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?