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?

Well?

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?

Two Stories on Education

Much burbling about "fairness", "equity":

In a key test case, Brighton will become the first city in England this year to employ the system as a tie-breaker at all of its over-subscribed secondaries. It is believed other areas may be encouraged to follow suit in an attempt to bring greater transparency to the admissions system.

The new admissions code bans schools from interviewing children and parents, or asking for extra information designed to weed out pupils from poorer homes who may be more difficult to teach.

Jim Knight, the schools minister, warned it was "unacceptable that children may be missing out on school places" 12 months after the new rules were imposed.

And elsewhere:

Failure to teach children the three Rs at a young age is damaging the British economy, according to a report published by Cambridge University today.

Productivity lags as much as 25 per cent behind economic competitors such as Germany, France and the United States because workers lack basic reading, writing and numeracy skills, it is claimed.

Those productivity numbers I\’m sure are wrong but leave that aside.

I can\’t help thinking that if less effort was expended on the "fairness" side of things rather more might be on the "teaching" side. It isn\’t the most difficult thing in the world, to teach the basics of readin\’, \’ritin\’ and \’rithmetic, given that the ankle biters are there for five years on a compulsory basis.

We Musn\’t Discriminate Now, Must We?

A report from the education front lines:

The report, Able Pupils Who Lose Momentum, found shortcomings in the 37 primaries across England visited by Government advisers.

One of the key problems uncovered by researchers was the failure to put children into ability sets or groups. Even when children were put in classes with children of similar abilities, clever children were still grouped with other "lower ability" pupils when carrying out work.

"Children often worked exclusively in mixed-ability groups and rarely worked with children who were making similar rates of progress," the report said.

Still insistent that children are a tabula rasa, that there are no innate differences in ability. Can we please, sometime soon, get back to the idea that all children should indeed be taught to the limits of their ability, but that ability varies?

Ms. Riddell

Most amusing. Three points:

One of the most welcome parts of Balls\’s children\’s plan is the renewed commitment to abolish child poverty by 2020. If that happens, and it will take some investment, then many ogres of childhood may melt away.

Could we please get this straight? This wll not be investment. It will be current spending. We\’re not going to be able to spend billions up to 2020 and then stop, considering the problem solved. We\’re going to have to go on spending those billions forever, until the end of time. For each new generation of children will require exactly the same corrective taxation and benefits handouts to alter the market incomes outcome to the desired one.

Health, fitness and weight are all class issues. Obesity and heart disease are plagues of the poor. It is no accident that far more children are overweight in the UK, with its sclerotic social mobility, than in the fairer Nordic societies.

OK, we\’re on the page where the education system does or does not lead to social mobility. So can we please actually have a look at what those fairer Nordic societies actually do in their education systems please? Sweden has a pure voucher system for education financing. Finland has a modification of vouchers (and, to what will most assuredly be a fit of the fainting vapours from educationalists, divides children at 15 into academic and vocational streams, at different schools: this is Grammars and Sec Mods, just at a later age). Denmark has a private school system both larger than the UK\’s and also funded considerably by the State:

The private independent schools (frie grundskoler) play an important role in Danish education. There are around 430 private schools situated all over the country, and approx. 11% of a cohort go to private schools for primary and lower secondary education.

Primary and lower secondary education is free of charge at municipal public schools. The private schools charge a fee, and the average for non-boarding schools is DKK 13,000 per year. Both the government and the municipality contribute considerably to the cost of operating the recognised private schools. 

Primary and lower secondary education is governed at municipal level, and it is the obligation of the municipality to ensure that all children receive education. 

Both private schools and continuation schools receive a substantial state subsidy.

Oh, and note that it is organised locally, not nationally. So if we\’re going to try and change the UK education system to get to that fairer outcome, can we please start adopting some of the policies which lead to that fairer outcome? Like, umm, vouchers, subsidy of private schools, sorting the academic from the vocational? Or is real world evidence not acceptable these days?

Critics say it\’s not in the gift or remit of the state to confer happiness. Why not? When it has proved so adept at making children unhappy – by piling on too many jail sentences, Asbos, exams, dead-end schools and unreal expectations – it also bears a duty to be an agent of a better life.

Err, if the State is making people uinhappy then surely we don\’t want it to potter off and try and make them happy in other ways: what we\’d actually like it to do is stop making people unhappy, isn\’t it?

Being Vile About the Sutton Trust Report

So we had the Sutton Trust report.

Parental background continues to exert a very significant influence on the academic
progress of children:
o Those from the poorest fifth of households but in the brightest group at age three
drop from the 88th percentile on cognitive tests at age three to the 65th percentile
at age five. Those from the richest households who are least able at age three
move up from the 15th percentile to the 45th percentile by age five.
o If this trend were to continue, the children from affluent backgrounds who are
doing poorly at age three would be likely to overtake the poorer but initially bright
children in test scores by age seven.
o Inequalities in degree acquisition meanwhile persist across different income
groups. While 44 per cent of young people from the richest 20 per cent of
households acquired a degree in 2002, only 10 per cent from the poorest 20 per
cent of households did so.

But we\’ve also got this:

The problem with this famous Eyferth study, which formed the backbone of Flynn\’s Race, IQ, and Jensen, is that it was a study of children. So? After Flynn wrote this book, behavioral geneticists gradually made the amazing discovery that the heritability of IQ (and many other traits) sharply rises as children grow up, while family effects on IQ fade out.

Now I have no idea whether that last is in fact true, but if it is it provides us with a way of interpreting the Sutton Trust\’s results. A way that will be most un politically correct. Children of the poor do badly in the educational system because they are dim. That dimness being a genetic problem, one which becomes apparent as they age.

It is, in fact, the exact opposite of the Trust\’s thrust. It isn\’t that a bad environment hampers the children of the poor, it\’s that we only find out about their dimness as they grow older.

No, I don\’t think I like that conclusion either but what if it is actually true?

What if, say, the educational mobility of the 50s through 70s was a one off event? That there were those with the brains but not the opportunity to rise, that once the opportunity arose they did in fact rise but that there\’s no more such to come?

All depends rather on the heritability of IQ I guess and that\’s something that creates a firestorm whenever it\’s mentioned.

As I say, I\’m not sure I like that conclusion but I\’m absolutely certain that it will enrage all of the right people.