Now here\’s a solution

Teachers in a school district in Texas will be allowed to carry guns when classes resume this month. David Thweatt, the school superintendent, said the policy would allow the school to protect pupils from attack.

Protect pupils from attack?

Or to attack them?

"The dog ate your homework, hunh? Bring him in and I\’ll cap him for you then"?

Sounds sensible to me

So, Oxford is accused of social engineering:

Students who apply to Oxford University will have the postcode of their family home taken into account during the selection process, The Observer can reveal.

In a controversial move, which critics say amounts to \’social engineering\’, academics will identify those applicants who live in deprived, middle-income or more affluent neighbourhoods. Those living in poorer areas will stand a better chance of being selected for interview.

The aim of the scheme, which will be implemented later this year, is to help pick out pupils who have achieved top grades despite growing up in areas where aspirations are low and few people consider university an option.

The complaint is further that Oxford should be selecting purely upon intellectual ability rather than background.

Whichis a little odd, for someone who grew up in, say, one of those appalling estates in East Glasgow, with whatever it is, 130% unemployment and the entire population flossing with heroin every morning, and then gets straight As at A level can be said to have displayed really rather a lot of intellectual ability, certainly more than someone with the same exam results who has had the good fortune to be hothoused through Eton.

I would look at this as not so much social engineering as an attempt to find out who really does have that intellectual ability.

How very Adam Smith

On education, governments have one core role. It is not to produce East Anglia\’s answer to Cicero, or to finesse the next Bill Gates from a business-oriented NVQ. It\’s not even (desirable as that might be) to stuff the common rooms of Balliol with summa cum laude graduates of inner-city comprehensives.

Its duty is to provide all its citizens with a fine basic education. That is the only test that matters. After 11 years of Labour, it has still not been met.

Quite: as the man said, there\’s a role for the State in that basic education arena. The rest of it could be, as he suggested, left to the market perhaps?

Or if we\’re unwilling to have the State only involved in the primary school area, why not crack open the system to as much of the market as we can stand? Endow the universities (a billion each say, simply issue inflation proofed gilts to them. Makes no difference to the public finances as we\’re already on the hook for the NPV of their future subsidies) and set them free. Vouchers for everyone else.

As we\’re consitently told, other countries do education better than we do. As we\’re a great deal less often told they also do it with less money than we do in the main. It\’s not somuch how much money is spent, but how it\’s spent: more freedom to the consumer does indeed mean better service to said consumer.


High Earnings From Diplomas

Education experts accused ministers of generating "the height of hype" after the claim was publicised in a new Government document promoting the controversial qualifications.

The pamphlet \’The Diploma: Bridging Learning To Life\’ claims that those with A levels, Advanced Diplomas or Advanced Apprenticeships would potentially earn £1.23 million.

While those with GCSE grades A-C or Apprenticeships or the less advanced Higher Diplomas would eventually earn £1.02 million.

Yes, I know, we normally regard the government as speaking with forked tongue when it comes to statistics but this particular one seems entirely believable.

Entirely uninteresting, but entirely believable.

Average wages these days for all full time employees are somewhere in the 20k to 23 k range (sorry, working from memory…but average wage for all jobs is some £10 an hour, so it\’s roughly right at least). Add in a bit of real wage increase, say, 2% a year (not far off the long term average) and in 47 years time said average will be 50k -58k (yes, this does already account for inflation).

So, over a 47 year working career (18-65) that\’ll be an average of £35k a year, or £1.6 million.

So what we\’re really being told is that those taking these diplomas will earn less than average wages over their lifetime in work.

If we include inflation (say, 2% to add to our 2% real wage increase) then in 47 years average wages will be 120k, giving us an average over the lifespan of 70k. Or £3.2 million in lifetime earnings which means that they really will be earning well below average wages.

Now I can\’t check their calculations as a quick Google doesn\’t show up that pamphlet. And I\’m sure that there\’s an error or two in my above scribbles.

But the simple fact that real wages tend to rise over time (to say nothing of inflation) mean that those lifetime earnings estimates are entirely believable, if not rather on the low side.

Free Schools

Fraser Nelson advises Cameron to promise them now, so as to be able to hit the ground running and get them up and operating properly within the term of the new government.

Can\’t say I disagree either. I do like this:

Labour\’s objections to a Free School scheme simply underline its potency. Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, says Free Schools would be "unplanned" by ministers, as if this were a self-evident absurdity. Unpopular schools would face ruin, he says, while threatening to close them himself. Teachers will be poached, rather than sacked, as their career options multiply.

That\’s right, Balls in complaining about what is actually the whole point.

Measuring Academia

Nick Cohen\’s sorta right here but he\’s missing the elephant:

Few dispute that academia needs reforming. Britain has a university system in which the last measure the government uses to judge the quality of academics is their ability to teach. Instead, tortuous bureaucracies assess the merits of the research produced by every department in all the 200 universities. On their ruling rests the disposal of £5bn of public money.

The 2008 fight for loot is under way. Luckless workers at a Bristol warehouse are sending 200,000 scholarly books and papers to the 1,000 or so professors who adjudicate on 70 panels like the judges of beauty contests.

In the inaugural issue of the new magazine Standpoint, Jonathan Bate of Warwick University despairs of the absurdity of the enterprise. He explains that panels filled with professors of foreign languages have been more generous in rating the work of their peers than professors of English. Officially, our universities are now world leaders in the study of French literature but awful at studying English literature. What\’s really happened, says Bate, is that while other professors of literature covered each other\’s backs and looked after each other\’s departments \’the Eng lit lot couldn\’t resist biting each other\’s backs\’ even if it meant their subject lost money.

His larger point is that universities should be judged by how they teach, not by the research they put out. And yes, there\’s a great deal of truth to that. Churning out the 357 th rehash of a review of French Symbolist poetry does indeed loom larger in the decisions of funding than the undergraduate course which actually teaches the students something useful (for any and every meaning of the word useful, from the utilitarian "does it help them get a job" to the non-such "does it expand their minds or enrich their lives").

On the more specific point of how research is measured and described above there\’s one major change that really ought to be made: stop the central funding of it. A number of ways for this to be achieved of course: we could simply ask students to pay the full costs of their education (with whatever subsidy of the poor we desire) and then let the universities get on with it. We could give each university an endowment and let them get on with it. We could pay from central funds simply a per capita fee….

But all of those come up against something of a difficult political problem. The argument in favour of any central subsidy for research is that it is a public good: non-rivalrous and non-excludable, so the socially optimal amount of it will not be produced under a free market system. Thus we do indeed need to have taxpayer subsidy. We can indeed place the education of students on a market basis (although there\’s also a weaker version of this public good argument there as well, but not one that I think is important enough to stop us making a one time subsidy like the endowments and then letting the market work) but how could we with research?

It\’s a toughie and I don\’t have any glib answers: other than the point that the current method simply ain\’t the way to do it. Hugely centralised and bureaucratic….that\’s not the way to do anything, really, is it?

Well Done Bruce!

Nice to see an occasional reader around here making waves elsewhere.

Elite universities are failing to recruit working-class students because IQ is, on average, determined by social class, according to an academic.

Bruce Charlton, a reader in evolutionary psychiatry at Newcastle University, claims that the greater proportion of students from higher social classes at highly selective universities is not a sign of admissions prejudice but rather the result of simple meritocracy.

No, I\’ve not read the paper but why should that stop me pontificating?

I think though that the report is being a little unfair to his ideas. It isn\’t that IQ is determined by social class, rather, that IQ itself determines economic class. And as social classes are (more than they used to be at least) determined by economic class, thus we see this outcome.

It doesn\’t really matter what IQ itself is here, whether it\’s measuring something immutable or something which is appropriate for success in our current societal structure. All we need for this mechanism to operate is that it both be heritable (which to a large extent it is) and that it determine, even if only in part, economic success.

Both of which contentions I think are really quite supportable.

There\’s also a rather impish corollary. We certainly did used to have a society in which life chances were a great deal more regulated by position of birth than is true now. When these restrictions were relaxed in the post war years, we saw a great deal more social mobility than before or indeed since. Using this IQ idea we could interpret this as being that society did indeed hold people back from the position that their IQ would have preited….but that once that age cohort had risen through the system, there isn\’t a pool of high IQ people in the next generation being unfairly held back. The parents that handed on such IQs to them are already middle class and thus the movement stops.

I have to admit that I\’m not 100% convinced either by the original contention (I\’m sure it\’s true in part, how much is the important bit) nor my corollaries but fun to speculate all the same, eh?


A Decent Schools Policy

Mr. Heffer finally says something I agree with wholeheartedly.

Nor can the Tories brook the dirty word "vouchers", even though that is what the system cries out for. Their policy should be simple. Abolish local education authorities and charitable status, zero-rate all schools for VAT by law, and then hand out a voucher that would not only be a small compensation to fee-paying parents for the loss of charitable status, but would reward them for taking such a burden off the state.

Under such a plan, the state system as we know it would vanish. All schools would be independent, freed of LEAs. The voucher could be used in all of them, whether formerly state or formerly independent.

If you really want to break down the barriers between the two systems, want to drive bad schools out of business, raise standards in the rest, take the politics out of education and give everyone a crack at "elitism", that is the way forward. It would allow choice for parents, and choice for schools too: they could select by whatever means they wanted, or not at all.

Some schools would be more expensive, just as some shops are. Why should the market, which can do so much to improve education, be kept out of it? And why should the Tories be so embarrassed and fearful?

With the sole excecption of the ability to top up the voucher that is indeed roughly what happens in such disgustingly inegalitarian places like Sweden, Denmark and Holland. Finland, usually appearing as the top school system globally when such things are measured, also has a variation. So why are people so opposed to it?

Why is it that people cannot understand the most basic truth, that some things are simply too important to exclude them from the market?

Bronx High School of Science.

When I went there, Bronx Science was the most intellectually exclusive, snobbiest public high school in the country. Actual true fact: If it were a country, Bronx Science would rank 23rd in the world in the number of Nobel laureates it has produced, tied with Spain.

Selectivity and elitism in education are indeed horrible, terrible things.


50% at University

I\’ll admit that I rather struggle to understand this.

Labour will keep its target of sending half of all school-leavers to university despite figures showing that participation in higher education is falling, ministers have insisted.

No, not the failure to hit the target, but the target itself. Other than having been plucked from the air, what is so magical about 50% of the age group going to university?

All I can see that has happened is a degrading of the graduate premium (arts majors fo men now seem to have a negative return for example) and an expansion of Mickey Mouse degree courses. Plus, of course, a vast expansion of credentialism. Does a nurse, for example, really need a university degree? Do, as argued only last week, nursery staff need one? Do teachers need a post-graduate one?

I can see huge value in people doing degrees: either as a rite of passage or for the sheer joy of learning, but outside a rather small section of jobs (I\’m thinking about certain sciences and engineering disciplines) the economic value of a degree (which is what I think the justification used for that target is) seems to me to be very weak.

So where did that target come from and what is used to justify it?

"The Knowledge Economy" doesn\’t cut it I\’m afraid. That requires that all doing such degrees are in fact aquiting knowledge of economic value, which I don\’t see as being true.

Aww, Bless

Children should be banned from leaving school at lunchtime so they cannot gorge themselves on junk food, a Government body says today.

Restrictions should also be placed on the opening of new burger bars, kebab shops, chip shops and sweet shops near schools to remove temptation from pupils, it is claimed.

It\’s for the children, of course, not the joy of bansturbation.

The Education System

Odd to see this in The Guardian but welcome all the same:

There is now a torrent of evidence emerging that Britain\’s rigid, centralised approach to teaching has utterly failed in what it set out to do. It has not raised achievement, enthused pupils, narrowed the gaps between rich and poor, or given children the skills they need to make the most of their working and private lives. International surveys, small-scale studies of classroom practice, and the reports of the government\’s own agencies are all leading to the same conclusion: that real learning has been fatally abandoned for the sake of some very minor improvements in test results. Teachers are so preoccupied with telling pupils the answers they need for their exams that they can rarely respond to children\’s curiosity, arouse their interest, or find out what they think.

So what is needed is the abolition of that rigid and centralised approach.

Allow each school to conduct itself as it sees fit: to teach using whatever method they themselves prefer.

Slap that voucher on the back of every snot nose and let the market sort it out.

What\’s not to like?

Bill Greenshields

The new head of Britain’s biggest teaching union has called for the private education system to be nationalised.

Umm, just how will this improve matters? Other than, of course, removing that competition which shows up how crap much of the State education system is? And, umm, removing from the education system that money which parents currently pay to educate their children privately.

Seriously, just how would increasing the enrollment in State schoolsw by 7% on the same current budget makes things better?

That such logical stupidity can be seriously put forward by a teacher tells you something about what is wrong with the education system….the quality of the people in it isn\’t quite all it might be.

There\’s an Answer to This

There is in short a systemic problem – a roadblock on the route to meritocracy. Roughly 7% of children are educated at private schools, but these pupils take up 45% of Oxbridge places and a disproportionate amount at other top universities. When so many prizes are still going to a narrow, self-selecting pool of expensively coached talent, this makes a mockery of New Labour\’s protracted silence on the subject.

Recognising this is in 2008 the crucial first-order priority; ways of reducing the unfair premium can then be devised. I am not (unlike Alan Bennett) advocating abolition of private schools. Parents are perfectly entitled to spend their money on giving their children a first-class education. What they are not entitled to is the present assumption that that education almost automatically confers major socio-economic advantages.

Make all schools private. Slap a voucher on the back of every ankle biter and let the market sort them out.

Why Learn Maths?

Brian Micklethwait asks:

But what about the kind of maths that really is maths, as opposed to mere arithmetic, with lots of complicated sorts of squiggles? What about infinite series, irrational numbers, non-Euclidian geometry, that kind of thing? I, sort of, vaguely, know that such things have all manner of practical and technological applications. But what are they? What practical use is the kind of maths you do at university? I hit my maths ceiling with a loud bump at school, half way through doing A levels and just when all the truly mathematical stuff got seriously started, and I never learned much even about what the practical uses of it all were, let alone how to do it.

I also get that maths has huge aesthetic appeal, and that it is worth studying and experiencing for the pure fun and the pure beauty of it all, just like the symphonies of Beethoven or the plays of Euripides.

But what are its real world applications? Please note that I am not asking how to teach maths, although I cannot of course stop people who want to comment about that doing so, and although I am interested in that also. No, here, I am specifically asking: why learn maths?


I would split the subject into two. For past a certain level, it most certainly is two entirely different disciplines. The first is pure maths. For those who like it (most definitely a subset of the population) it\’s glorious, beautiful, engaging, even thrilling. It\’s also a description of the universe as it ought to be. Any connection between results and the real world is entirely coincidental: pure mathematicians are the original "yes, that\’s all very well in practice, but is it true in theory?" people. Once you climb into the higher realms (well past A levels) the value is like that of poetry. That\’s not to say that more practically useful things don\’t come from it, of course they do, but it\’s not done for its practicality nor will anyone attempting to do it for its practicality do very well at it. 

Statistics rather reverses this. Looking at it in one way it\’s rather like, yes, well, this is all very well in theory but is it true in practice? We go out and gather real world information and then examine it to see what it tells us. While we might think that x happens because of y, we actually want to find out whether that is true. Or does y happen because of x? Or do they both happen because of a? Or are they simply correlated rather than caused by any of them? And many statistical tests are designed to work out how important our result is.

There\’s two things that statistics are extremely useful for. The first is to teach you how to gamble: that\’s the root of the whole subject anyway. Seriously, it really started with people trying to work out how to win at cards and dice. Things like the Fibonacci series, which explains things as varied as the placing of petals on a flower and possibly the curling of a wave, also explain the liklihood of throwing a 4, 5 or any other number with a pair of dice. From that we derive ! and so on.

But the second thing it\’s extremely useful for is politics. The standard intro by some pantywaist who wants to steal your liberty, livelihood and freedoms is "research has shown that….". Statistics enables you to evaluate whether research actually has shown (the death rate from Ebola is 80% so yes, clamping down on movements and civil liberties during an outbreak can be justified) or not shown ("the part time pay gap for women is 40%", no, it isn\’t, that\’s comparing the wages per hour of part time women against full time men. Comparing part time women against part time men gives us 11%.) the point that the speaker is trying to make.

Which of the two you are good at, which you prefer doing, largely depends upon your mindset at the beginning. I\’m not very good at either, but I do struggle to understand the statistics side as well as I can for defending those liberties, livelihoods and freedoms from those who would steal them on spurious grounds seems to me rather important.

Oh Dear

Good grief, are students nowadays really like this?

On Saturday I stood at Warwick University\’s union bar. I had been speaking at a rather excellent student conference and the organisers had invited me to join the students for the evening. Large numbers of the 400 students present were standing without anything to drink, unable to afford the highly-taxed lagers that were on sale. As a result, students stood in straight lines listening quietly to the live band. No one was smoking, which of course would have been illegal.

Well Done Gordon

Gordon Brown lays out his plans to deal with the challenges of globalisation.

To build a world-class teaching workforce, we will shortly announce our proposals for a new masters qualification

Wrong! As teachers themselves seem to think, postgraduate education courses are one of the problems, not one of the solutions.

And from Tim Worstall, unusually, something about education I think most teachers would agree with: we knew the \’academic\’ component of our post-grads in education was a waste of time, taught as we were by a bunch of people who could hack it neither as teachers nor academics, peddling out-dated theories that I would decline to describe as \’liberal\’*. We all knew the only thing worthwhile in the whole damn year was the actual teaching practice.

Abolish education degres entirely and simply make teacher training 6 weeks of teaching practice. You might want to say that you can only teach in a secondary school if you\’ve got a degree in something or other, you might not (would one of the new cookery teachers need a degree? Or would someone who has run a kitchen for 20 years but now getting a little creaky around the knees be a better hire?), but the year or more of theoretical education about education needs to go.

Mind Boggling

Point one:

We will never go back to selection

Point two (the next part of the same sentence):

but you could have a situation where 11-year-olds with a particular talent in a certain subject or the potential to go to a certain university are encouraged at an early age.

Leading to:

Potential Oxbridge students should be identified at 11 and given special mentoring throughout their school years to help them compete for a place, the Government\’s access tsar has proposed.

So when is selection not selection?