The Welfare State We're In, The website of the book by James Bartholomew
December 08, 2010
Britain 28th in reading - below Estonia and Poland

The latest Pisa study on educational attainment is given surprisingly modest coverage in some newspapers. It shows Britain falling quite dramatically in the standings as the coverage in the Daily Mail makes very clear:

Travesty of our 'stagnating' schools: In a damning indictment of Labour, OECD condemns British education which is now inferior to Estonia's

By Kate Loveys

Britain has plummeted down worldwide education rankings in the last decade, according to definitive figures which shame Labour’s record on schools.

Despite doubled spending since 2000, the education of teenagers has ‘stagnated at best’.

The verdict is a damning indictment of Tony Blair’s mantra that his three top priorities in government were ‘education, education, education’.

Falling behind: British students are at a disadvantage compared to many others around the world

Britain has now fallen behind such relatively poor nations as Estonia, Poland and the Slovak Republic in reading, maths and science.

Although spending has risen from £35.8billion to £71billion, the education of teenagers has failed to register any improvement and in some areas has deteriorated rapidly.

In stunning proof that taxpayers did not get value for money, the UK slipped from eighth to 28th in maths, from seventh to 25th in reading and from fourth to 16th in science over the same period. Poland now ranks ten places ahead of the UK in reading and is three ahead in maths.

Even more disturbingly, the study found that a fifth of 15-year-old Britons are ‘functionally illiterate’, which ‘significantly reduces their chances of success in later life’.

The figures were released yesterday by the highly respected Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which compared the standards of 15-year-olds in 65 developed countries.

British children’s poor reading skills are said to be partly because they spend too much time on computers rather than reading books, but are also a tragic reflection of the education they have received.

Nor has it helped that the UK has a relatively low proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. And having some of the world’s ‘best-educated’ parents has not improved the standards of Britain’s children – raising serious questions about the effective role of parents in UK schools.

The study was based on two-hour tests of 500,000 15-year-old schoolchildren by the OECD. Some 65 countries were listed in this year’s rankings compared with 54 three years ago.

Andreas Schleicher of the OECD said overall scores achieved by UK pupils were ‘stagnant at best, or marginally lower, whereas many other countries have seen quite significant improvements’.

The UK, despite being the eighth-biggest spender per pupil on education, with an average of £8,892 a year at secondary level, performed below the international average in maths, only just above in reading and slightly better in science.

The Far East had strong performers with the region of Shanghai-China coming top in all three subjects and Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan all ranking high.

Finland, which places strong emphasis on teacher quality, was ranked highest European nation.

Subject by subject: This table shows just how far the UK has fallen down the league tables

Read more:

The OECD Pisa studies are far from perfect, for reasons mentioned in The Welfare State We're In. In at least one earlier report, the study flattered the British state schooling in two ways: 1. The overall figure included private schools which had outstanding results on an international basis and 2. Some schools declined to take part in the study and it seemed likely at the time that these were schools with lower attainment levels. So a drop in the British position may be partly because the OECD has simply improved its methods of assessing British schools.

The remark about 20% functional illiteracy is, in itself, an appalling condemnation of British state education.

Meanwhile I cannot help being a little suspicious of the stand-out result for Shanghai. I note that the assessment was done by a third party. I can imagine that the Chinese authorities saw it as a matter of pride that the country should do well rather than that it should be objective. So I wonder whether any techniques were used to skew the results.

But one thing about the article below is most remarkable: the assertion that the vast majority of Chinese children have private tuition in addition to their official schooling. This is also true in South Korea.

However, the OECD noted that China has long been organised around competitive exams, with schools working their students long hours every day and into the weekend.

Students are accustomed to "intense examinations and tests" and therefore may have been better suited to the PISA test. In addition, it estimated that eight out of ten Shanghainese schoolchildren get additional, out-of-hours, private tuition.

Meanwhile, Chinese students tend to spend less time on sport and other activities which are not core components of the "gaokao", a set of exams that determines their place at university, and indeed in life.

The pressure of the gaokao has been blamed for a lack of creativity in China by some critics. Xu Jilin, a professor of history at East China Normal University, whose son is at a Shanghai middle school, wrote in October that "this rigid examination system has created an exam-oriented education from the kindergarten, a destruction of talent and waste of youth."

He added that he felt that 80 per cent of his son's studies had not helped him learn something new, but had prepared him for tests. "Doing exercises every day is like practising gymnastics, repeating the same moves every day, dozens or hundreds of times in order to make sure that absolutely no errors are made during the exam."

The testing in Shanghai was carried out by an international third-party, working with Chinese authorities, the OECD said.

Full OECD report here.

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September 30, 2010
The disgusting campaign against free schools

I have just watched on BBC iPlayer a television programme about Toby Young's struggle to set up a new school within the state system.

The most shocking thing about the film is the campaign to stop these schools which appears to be endorsed by the National Union of Teachers. The NUT is using its power in a bad cause. The campaing against free schools is a disgusting.

There seems an unwillingness to understand or care that Young's school and others like them are wanted by parents because they are not happy with the existing state schools on offer. Is that really so difficult to grasp? Not happy. They don't think many of the state schools are good enough. There is a mass of evidence to support their view. Yet the NUT still has trouble with getting this - or perhaps caring about it.

Those who are angrily against the idea of a new, free schools in the state sector seem to think of the existing state system as a religion rather than as a means to give to the best possible education. If it is system, not a religion, it should be willing to be compared to rivals. This is what the NUT seems unwilling to agree to. Perhaps it does not want competition because, deep down, it fears that the free schools will be better. Their comfortable monopoly will be broken. They might be exposed as not, as in their view, virtuous heroes but as part of system which does not work very well - which actually lets down millions of children.

Free schools are an affront to their pride. They should stop caring about their pride and start caring about children who, in the current system, are not getting five good GCSEs and who are far from realising their potential.

One point they keep leaving aside is the fact that no one will be forced to go to these schools. They will only go if they want to. So what the NUT wants to do is deny people the choice of going to a free school. There is a totalitarian aspect to this which is actually repulsive.

Another point they choose to ignore is that Young intends the school to be open to people of all classes. It is not to be only a middle class enclave. In fact, those of lower social classes will be able to take advantage (I mean this in a good way) of the middle class people whose energy and belief is creating the school. Isn't that a good thing. And why should the phrase 'middle class' be regarded as an insult?

Here is a link to BBC iPlayer. You can find the programme by going to BBC2 and choosing 7pm on Wednesday 29th September (yesterday. I am not sure for how long this will continue to be available. Perhaps only a few days?

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July 19, 2010
Lessons from Zurich

In Britain we are now glumly entering the age of austerity and everyone expects unemployment to go on rising. It is normal here for a lengthy lag between growth starting and unemployment falling.

But Switzerland is different. There, unemployment is already falling. It is down from being relatively low in the first place to being even lower. It has fallen from 4.5pc to 3.8pc since January.

If you go to Zurich and ask the reason why, you have a good chance of being told: “employment is picking up fast because it is cheap to sack people”. It is a classic paradox and not the only one to be found in this part of the world.

In recent years, British policy-wonks have looked at how things are done in the USA. Meanwhile the Left has long had a warm glowing feeling about Sweden – usually unsullied by much research into the place. However there may be more to be learned about good social policy in little Switzerland. The country may not, apparently, have invented the cuckoo clock, but it has made a better fist of a welfare state than most countries. That is to say, it gets better results and, just as crucially, it avoids causing as much collateral damage.

The boom in lone and unmarried parenting is one of the ways in which our own welfare state has damaged our society - not only the children involved but also the women and men. Of course I am not blaming all lone parents, only saying that the research shows it is a less than ideal way of bringing up children and the effects on the children are well-documented. In Britain, 46pc of our children are born out of wedlock. In Switzerland the figure is vastly lower at 16pc.

So what happens, I asked, if you are, say, a young mother in Switzerland with a little baby but no husband or similar on the scene and nowhere to live? There is no countrywide answer to this question because it is not dealt with on a national basis at all. It is not even dealt with by one of the 26 cantons. It is dealt with by your local commune. There are 2,900 of these and the population can be anything between 30 and over 10,000.

Officials from this ultra-small local government will come and investigate the circumstances individually. The father will be expected to pay. The mother’s family, if it is in a position to, will be expected to house and pay for her. As a last resort, the young mother will be given assistance by the commune. But the people who pay the local commune taxes will be paying part of the cost. You can imagine that they will not be thrilled at paying for a birth or separation that need never have taken place. Putting yourself in the position of the mother – and perhaps the father – you can imagine that you will be embarrassed as you pass people in the street who are paying for your baby. Instead of feeling you have impersonal legal rights, as in Britain, you are taking money from people you might meet see at your local café. No wonder unmarried parenting is less common.

A similar system applies if you need means-tested benefits. Those made redundant receive, for a while, generous unemployment insurance payments from the cantonal governments. But once these payments run out, people depend again on their local commune. You would be cautious of claiming fraudulently because, if you worked in the black economy, your chances of being spotted would be high. And so it is that Switzerland has the second highest rate of male employment in the OECD. Britain’s rate is about 50pc worse.

Switzerland has arguably the most successful system of healthcare in the Western world. It is an insurance system with a twist. You are obliged to take out health insurance but you can choose which company to use. There is no state monopoly. So you can choose an insurance group which is connected to your line of work. Or you could go with a trade union-run insurance cooperative. Or a private, commercial company. That means there is some competition among these companies to provide the best possible service for the lowest possible price. Then these companies, in turn, have some choice over which doctors and hospitals they commission to work for them. So again, the doctors and hospitals have to compete to offer the best facilities and treatment at the lowest possible cost. The pressure is on and the performance is one of the best in the world. Poorer people get credits which enable them, too, to choose insurance.

The Swiss health service is decidedly superior to that in Britain, too. It has more doctors per capita, more advanced scanners, better cancer outcomes and so on and on.

All right, it is not perfect. Costs have been running ahead because, effectively, people get treated for free and since the service is easily available and good, they tend to overuse it. Thus the costs have been rising worryingly, as with other social insurance systems. However, it is still one of the best systems around. It provides less of a barrier to employment than most social insurance systems. The cost of the premiums is borne by individuals, not shared with companies as in Germany.

Swiss schools are also better, on average, than British ones. That has, again, surely got a lot to do with local control – not the fake kind that we are used to. Primary schools are run by the little communes and secondary schools and universities by the cantons. It means there are villages where the officials in charge of a school will all know the headmaster and many of the students. There is much less wasteful bureaucracy and much more direct accountability. But I should add that I gather home-schooling is virtually illegal. Those of us who care about the freedom of the individual versus the state do not like this part of the system one bit.

But the Swiss system really scores over ours when it comes to preparation for work. We have got used to Labour politicians and some Tory ones, too, spouting that university education is vital for economic success. This theory was comprehensively debunked in Alison Wolf’s book Does Education Matter? The Swiss example is an illustration that it is nonsense. While Tony Blair was claiming that half of young people must go on to university for economic success, Switzerland was and remains content to have a mere 24pc doing so. It has, at the same time, achieved much greater economic prosperity. Education is only compulsory until the age of 15 but actually the vast majority keep going voluntarily because the schools, colleges and universities are pretty good.

Most of the other three-quarters of students progress from school to vocational training. They don’t do airy-fairy theory. The training typically consists of one and a half days a week at college and the other three and a half at a commercial company. This truly prepares people with the skills and attitudes desirable for a successful career. The result? Switzerland has only 4.5pc youth unemployment compared to 18pc in France where they have the supposedly economy-boosting 50pc of students at university. It seems that writing essays on Racine does not make you a shoe-in at a pharmaceutical company. Funny that.

Let’s be honest. No welfare state is perfect. All of them do damage of one sort or another. And there are some claustrophobic, controlling elements in the Swiss system that are unappetising to British taste. There is a continuous pressure there towards centralisation and regulation. But there are plenty of lessons worth learning amid those lakes and mountains. The Swiss way of welfare is a darn sight better than the British.

The above is the unedited version of an article which appears in this week's Spectator magazine. I would simply link to the Spectator website but I can't locate the article there.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education • NHS • Parenting • Reform • Welfare benefits

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July 05, 2010
One reason why state schools tend to fail their students
Only 18 useless teachers axed in 40 years despite '17,000 failing staff' in our schools.

From the Mail.

An organisation that does not sack some of it members has fallen under the control of the 'producer interest'. It serves its staff as a priority of serving its customers - the children.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education • Waste in public services

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June 18, 2010
Something is going on and you don't know what it is

There was nice irony in the juxtaposition of two news stories yesterday. In one of them, Ofsted said that almost half children are at schools which do not warrant the term 'good' or better.

In the article immediately below, it was revealed that the same Ofsted thinks that those who wish to home-educate should be questioned, registered and inspected.

So there you have it. Half of British state schools, registered and regulated by Ofsted are not good. At the same time, Ofsted thinks that registering home-schoolers is a great idea. Let us hope one day politicians and the publish will realise that registration and regulation is not what makes things work well.

Is Google successful because it is regulated? Obviously not. Is St Paul's School for Girls an outstanding academic school because it has been registered? No. Has registration make 'bog-standard' comprehensives which one former Labour Secretary of State for Education 'would not touch with a bargepole' excellent? Obviously not. There is something else that is key for good performance and, in the words of the Bob Dylan song "you don't know what is".

It is chilling to read the paragraph in which Ofsted says why many children are now being home-schooled:

Although some parents opt for home schooling for religious or philosophical reasons, the majority of those interviewed by the inspectors said they decided to act out of concern for their children's education and wellbeing.

In other words, some parents and their children are finding the state, registered education so poor or the encouragement to crime so bad or the bullying so frightening that they are taking the daunting step of resorting to home-educating. What is Ofsted's answer to this? To make saving their children from such problems even more daunting for parents. To face parents with registration, inspection and questioning.

This will deter parents from undertaking home education and will therefore result in more children than otherwise being badly educated, bullied and led into crime at state schools, nine per cent of which Ofsted itself describes as 'inadequate'.

Ofsted seems desperately keen to keep children at schools. This shows a lack of realism - a failure to recognise the truth of poor schooling which Ofsted itself has described. It shows a disregard for the true interests of children let alone the right of a parent to take primary responsibility for his or her child - not the state. It also shows the self-regard of the classic bureaucrat who thinks that control by people like himself or herself must surely be the best thing. It is the delusion of vanity.

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June 08, 2010
Private schools expected to do better

The superior performance of private schools seems likely to be become even more obvious with the introduction of the A* grade in A levels.

In the latest study, the ISC analysed A-level results over the last three years to find out how many A*s would have been awarded.

It found that an estimated 16.5 per cent of all entries in ISC schools would have gained the A* last year, compared with 14.5 per cent a year earlier.

If the trend is repeated this year, it would result in around one-in-six A-level papers being awarded the new elite grade.

Last week, research from Ofqual, the qualifications regulator, found that around seven per cent of all A-level entries last year would have gained an A*.

But the latest study said: “If the results from ISC candidates are excluded, this figure falls, so that only five per cent of non-ISC candidates would have been awarded an A*.

“This would mean that entries from ISC pupils would have been more than three times more likely to be awarded an A* than non-ISC pupils.”

In all, some 36.5 per cent of all A*s awarded last year would have gone to pupils at ISC schools, it was claimed, even though independent schools educate just over one-in-10 sixth-formers nationally.

This is from an article in the Daily Telegraph yesterday.

Of course there will those who suggest that the dramatically superior results of the private schools is entirely due to the socio-economic background of the parents. But the work I did in The Welfare State We're In comparing the results of a top grammar school which it is extremely difficult to get into and has parents who are high up the socio-economic scale with one of the supposedly less academic private schools suggested that this is not true.

What is worrying for those who spend a small fortune on private schooling is that some of the results their children get are apparently going be ignored by Oxford University.

The disclosure – in a study by the Independent Schools Council – is likely to fuel controversy over university admissions.

Leading institutions are currently split over the use of the A* amid fears that the elite grade will be dominated to such an extent by private school pupils that it risks skewing the social mix of the student body.

Oxford is refusing to employ the A* in admissions this summer, but it will be used by Cambridge and Imperial College London.

I feel it is reasonable that universities should have regard to a student's potential as well as his or her achievement so far. But this should only be up to a point.

The danger for Oxford and others is that this looks like outright desire to ignore achievement. It could cause more parents to send their children to university in the USA or elsewhere. This could, in turn, further undermine the finances and standing of British universities.

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May 24, 2010
Only 55% of young adults know who led the British in the Battle of Trafalgar

More on the failure of British schools to teach history:

Nearly half of 18-24-year-olds (45 per cent) do not know that Nelson led the British to victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, with more than one in six (15 per cent) believing Cromwell was responsible, according to a survey commissioned by the national schools singing programme Sing Up.

More than one in four thought the Battle of Trafalgar was part of the English Civil War, while 34 per cent were unaware that Charles Darwin was English, with one in seven (14%) believing he was American.

This is from a Telegraph article today.

I was even more appalled, though, when I asked a 16 year old I know who led the British at Trafalgar, where was Darwin from and who built Hadrian's Wall? This is a 16 year old girl at a top private school who, unlike many of her colleagues, is taking a GCSE in history. She knows a remarkable amount about Hitler's foreign policy because that is on the national curriculum.

She got the Darwin question right. Who led at Trafalgar? Wellington, she suggested. I suppose at least he was from the right war. Who built Hadrian's Wall? Hadrian, obviously. OK. But where was he from? England.

Dear oh dear. I then, as a bonus question, asked who the Goths are or were. They were people who wore a lot of black. Did she know of any Goths who existed before the last 100 years? Well they built funny buildings that were called Gothic. Anything else? No.

Those parents who assume that their children know about Trafalgar and so on should try giving them a little test. It might provide a nasty surprise.

Postscript: When told that Hadrian was not English, the 16-year-old asked "Where did he come from? " Told that he was a Roman emperoror she exclaimed, "What were they doing over here?"

It makes you weep.

Further postscript: the girl doing history at GCSE is studying four subjects - international relations between the first and second world wars, Germany between the same wars, the Russian revolution and the development of warfare in the 20th century. These are all potentially interesting subjects but please note the omission: direct study of the history of Britain.

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May 19, 2010
"Did Hitler kill Jesus?"

This is a question which a 16 year-old girl studying for her GCSEs put to her classmates. This girl is at one of the top 100 private schools in Britain.

The school, like many others, now emphasises the sciences. It is compulsory there to do three separate science GCSEs. I think some of them are international GCSEs which are more difficult than ordinary GCSEs. So there is no doubting that this girl knows plenty about science. But history is not a compulsory GCSE at this school. Nor, of course, is the Christian religion. And even in the lower classes, the time devoted to religions and philosophies is spread among plenty of subjects including Islam, Buddhism and so on.

It is therefore not so surprising that this 16-year-old at a top school wonders whether Hitler - who wanted rid of the Jews - killed Jesus, who was a Jew. She just has not been taught much about history or Christianity.

The fashion for science over the humanities has, I suggest, gone too far.

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May 10, 2010
More detail on literacy

I have obtained a copy of the recent Sheffield University report on literacy and numeracy in Britain. It provides a bewildering array of statistics and the challenge is to work out which ones are reliable and which are not. The confidence placed in the consistency of the standards of the GCSE, for example, would not be shared by everyone.

In any case, I was struck by some of the comments. Here is one on a studies done by Massey and Elliott (1996) on writing looking at samples of age 16 English examination scripts from 1980 (GCE O-Level), 1993 and 1994 (GCSE), and later Massey et al. (2005) looking at GCSE scripts from 2004.

The results of the extended study showed that, while 1993 and 1994 were relatively poor years, the 2004 scripts had returned to the 1980 level (though not in spelling, where 1980 pupils were much better), and in some cases (e.g. punctuation) exceeded 1980. However, the use of non-standard English had increased through the years, and Massey et al. (2005) suggested that there was a case for an attempt to reverse this trend.

In other words, between 1980 and 2004, the report card would read:

1. Spelling - much worse
2. Punctuation - better
3. Use of non-standard English - worse.

Of course, this is only one assessment and for all I know it may be flawed (or it may not.

Here is a rather tantalising entry:

People at this level can handle only simple texts and straightforward questions on them where no distracting information is adjacent or nearby. Making inferences and understanding forms of indirect meaning (e.g. allusion, irony) are likely to be difficult or impossible. This is less than the functional literacy needed to partake fully in employment, family life and citizenship and to enjoy reading for its own sake. About 17% of young people in England are at this level. While this is lower than at some older ages in England, it is higher than in many other industrialised countries.

It is the final sentence that is intriguing. The authors are suggesting that the level of functional illiteracy in Britain is worse than in 'many other' industrialised countries. I have not read the full report with care as yet but I have not found the data which full describes this. I hope to discover more.

Incidentally, I seem to remember from previously looking at such studies that at least one PISA study did not get a full sample from Britain making the British outcome less than wholly reliable. It seemed quite possible that the PISA result flattered the British performance because lower-achieving schools were the ones which declined to take part.

I note that the Sheffield University study makes no attempt to separate out the performance of the private and the state sector. The PISA report that I once studied showed the the performance of the English private sector was the best in the world out of all countries and all sectors. This, inevitably, dragged up the overall level of the UK performance from what it would otherwise have been

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May 08, 2010
Nearly one in five children aged 16-19 is 'functionally illiterate'

I have often quoted a government report from the late 1990s saying that one out of five adults in Britain is 'functionally illiterate'. Now comes a report that provides further confirming evidence of this appalling state of affairs.

It is a government-funded report by Sheffield University:

The latest evidence on reading shows 17 per cent of 16- to 19-year-olds are functionally illiterate and Professor Brooks said this had also been the case for at least two decades.

“People at this level can handle only simple tests and straightforward questions on them where no distracting information is adjacent or nearby,” his report says.

“Making inferences and understanding forms of indirect meaning, eg allusion and irony, are likely to be difficult or impossible. This is less than the functional literacy needed to partake fully in employment, family life and citizenship and to enjoy reading for its own sake.”

This coverage is from the Times Educational Supplement which, unsurprisingly given its bias, fails to see this evidence as an indictment of state schooling or of teaching methods that have been used. Instead it quotes an NUT official demanding one-to-one tuition.

There is less complacent coverage from the Daily Mail.

See also this BBC story from last year.

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April 23, 2010
The true cost of government-provided schooling

Here is a video from the Cato Institute. It argues that there is a lack of honesty and transparency about the true cost of places at 'public schools' - what we call state schools in Britain. The same is true here, though I cited some estimates in The Welfare State We're In. Places at private schools are not so much more expensive as people assume - the waste much less money on bureaucracy. It is especially hard, incidentally, to find out how many people are employed by local authorities in state education. Anyone would think they did not want you to know.

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April 20, 2010
Mean-spirited and hypocritical opposition to free schools

I went to a debate entitled 'Free Schools - Yes or No?' featuring Toby Young, in favour of them, and Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), last night.

I found the the arguments against free schools depressing in that they were so thin, mean-spirited and, in a sense, hypocritical.

The hypocrisy was revealed when Kevin Courtney argued against free schools because, as he thought, the idea was to give places on a first-come, first-served basis. He said that this would 'cut out incompetent parents' who might be slow off the mark. In saying this, he gave the game away. He showed that he had no doubt that parents - both competent and incompetent - would want their children to go to such schools. He implicitly accepted the idea that parents would think that their children would do better there. In other words, unless he thinks parents are stupid, he thinks these schools would be better than the existing state schools.

So, he wishes to prevent the opening of schools that are better than the existing state schools. Yet at the same time he argues that the existing state schools are perfectly good. That is hypocrisy and double-talk. His arguments are self-contradictory.

This is part of what made me think that his motivation - and that of other opponents of free schools - is not to be found in the actual arguments used but in what you might call the behavioural psychology of education politics.

The opponents of free schools, I suspect, are nearly all part of the state system and deep down they want to prevent any suggestion that the teaching they give can be improved upon. Psychologically they feel it is a challenge to their belief in the value of their own work. It is thus a function of vanity, not of altruism or socialist ideology or anything of that sort. There is also, perhaps, an element of a desire to control everything in education - a desire that their control should not be challenged by parents, children, private provision, charitable provision or anything else. They know best. There is something distinctly unpleasant and Orwellian about their opposition.

It is sad to hear people who want to prevent the creation of schools that would serve children better.

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March 11, 2010
Death by bureaucracy

Imagine you are the head of a school. You receive a constant supply of instructions from national and perhaps local government. You have a huge volume instructions on encouraging equality and community cohesion and things of that sort as well as instructions on actual education. The strength of these instructions varies from guidelines up to laws.

There is such a vast quantity of this material that you are faced with a choice. Do you:

1. Panic
or 2. Bury yourself in reading in detail all the instructions
or 3. Be reckless (and not look at it)?

That is the situation in which heads of schools in Britain now are, according to Amanda Spielman, Research and Development Director for Ark Schools which has opened eight academies. She gave a speech last night hosted by the Learning Skills Foundation. It was a superb speech because it described in detail the sort of regulation to which schools are subject, how the regulations are increasing in number and the damage that they do. There was no doubt that this was authoriative and balanced. This made it all the more grim. At the end one wondered why anyone would want to face the onslaught of instructions. It is against human nature to be, at once a leader of a school and, at the same time, a servant to myriad instructions from various levels of government.

She referred, for example, to EU procurement rules which "add enormously to the cost of business". Then - just as an example of one rule out of hundreds - there was the code that outlaws schools giving preference to siblings who have left a school. This is now actually illegal. Schools must have 'behaviour partnerships'. She commented that most of the rules were ones which one could see were in favour of desirable things. Co-operation is a good thing. But this has gone from being something desirable to being something obligatory.

Meanwhile there is an unending demand for data from government. The National Curriculum is prescriptive. The government insists schools should do social engineering in favour of equality. It demands schools have policies in favour of 'community cohesion'. She commented that this policy was originally intended to get schools in one town to integrate more with the rest of British society. But, because rules are rules, those schools which have a complete mix of children and thoroughly 'cohesive' are obliged also to follow the instructions and demonstate that they are doing so.

All this takes a great deal of time and paperwork and most of it does absolutely nothing to improve the education of children - the purpose of schools.

There are many adverse consequences.

- The time and effort of key personnel used on these things instead of on promoting education.

- Amanda Spielman said there was an element of intimidation. She referred to a talented and able head of a school being distressed and completely throwing out policy statements she had written because they were not liked by OFTSED inspectors.

- Barriers to entry. The bureaucratic jungle acts to deter anyone from trying to start a new school or academy - particularly those who are small in scale. In fact the big companies and organisations gain something from this barrier to entry - they know it keeps out small, new and perhaps innovative competitors.

What can be done?

She would like a tougher test for new regulations. At the moment, the test seems to be 'is this desirable?' If so, the regulation is put in place. Instead, she suggests, the test should be 'could we survive without it?"

She suggests that in a previous generation, legislation was to provide punishment for seriously bad things like murder. Now legislation aims at risk management - outlawing things that might have bad consequences.

A member of the audience who works in a school said that the government first wanted to insist on the introduction of expensive soft surfaces on playgrounds so that children do not injure themselves. Then the government came to think that learning about danger was a good thing for children and came to the view that adventure areas were good. This is an example of how schools are pushed this way and then that by government.

Amanda Spielman said there was a culture now whereby whatever the government decided was good became universally compulsory.

One of the audience was senior in a group of schools (which, to protect her, I will not name). She said that heads should ignore great swathes of the instructions. She said that the government left alone those ones which were doing well.

Amada Spielman said, separately, that if a business is in trouble, it goes back to basics and cuts out non-essential activities to get the main one right. But with schools in difficulty they could not behave like this. They were obliged to go on with all the government regulations even when their backs were against the wall.

I fear I have not done justice to an excellent and persuasive speech. I hope that she will go into print herself on this.

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March 10, 2010
A letter of condolence written in 1939

I have recently inherited a dauntingly large archive of letters and papers relating to my mother's family. They include letters and diaries written by my grandfather as long ago as 1901. Looking at just a few of these - the tip of the iceberg - I came across a little packet of letters of condolence sent to him in 1939 on the death of his wife, my grandmother. As I never met my grandmother, I was interested to know more of what she was like. This is one of the letters:

"Dear Sir,

Yesterday I called at 57 Pont Street to learn with deep regret the sudden passing of Mrs Beresford.

Of the many hundreds of people who graced the staircase during the two and a half years I was parlourmaid to her Ladyship, Mrs Beresford with her sweet naturalness was always outstanding in my memory.

I left her Ladyship to take over a small business on the 4th Sept. Unfortunately war broke out as everything was settled and so many people from whom I could buy are out of town. But faith is a conquering power which stands us in good stead even in the darkest hours.

Please forgive me Sir, for writing to you but I feel so inwardly urged to do so, and to accept my profound sympathy during these dark days through which you are passing.

With my best respects
I remain,

Yours truly
Ruth Craven"

The letter is evocative of that time in all sorts of ways. But what struck me most of all was the richness of the writer's expression. As a former parlourmaid, she was obviously from the poorer half of British society. I wondered, if she were alive today and came from the same relative social class, would she be able to write such a letter? I doubt it. The letter is not perfect but the second sentence contains 31 words (the number two and a half was written with figures) and starts with a long sub-clause which has a terrific image of many people on a staircase that she had seen in her work. That complexity and elegance of expression would be as much or more than you might hope these days from an Oxbridge graduate. I doubt that you would expect it from someone in her relative position. And remember, most adults now left school aged 16 or 18. Ruth Craven probably left school at 11 or 14.

I don't offer this letter as proof or even strong evidence that educational standards have dropped. It is only one letter and there could be all sorts of reasons why it was written as it was. But for those of us who already believe, due to a wide variety of accumulated evidence, that educational standards have dropped, the letter is a possible illustration of just what has been lost.

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February 08, 2010
State education and the decline of language learning

At an Intelligence Squared debate last week, Professor Mary Beard gave some indications of how the teaching of languages has suffered in state education.

- Fewer than 500 state schools now offer any classical languages and much of this teaching is offered in the 'twilight' hours after most classes have finished.

- The government is not providing enough training of classics teachers to replace the ones who will retire.

- The numbers taking French GCSE have fallen by 100,000 since 2004.

- There is some difficulty in finding sufficient translators for the London Olympics.

- Generally speaking she was Left-wing and disliked private schools but she wished them to survive because they were the place in which language and classics teaching were continuing.

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January 27, 2010
What were the mechanics of the corruption of science teaching?

Why do the people who frame the curriculum and GCSEs want to take out the tough, scientific content (see entry below)?

It certainly suits politicians to make exams easier to pass. Higher grades give the impression of successful education. Also if they make science exams easier, they calculate that more children will chose them than otherwise. This is politically useful because it slows down any flight in state schools from hard subjects to soft ones. Politicians wish to slow down this flight because it reveals the way that state schools are underachieving and this reflects badly on them.

However, teachers would not - one hopes - want to be associated with such political calculations.

Some, though certainly not all, have come to think that teaching children to think about science - or other subjects - is more important than teaching them a body of specific knowledge. On the surface, the idea has its appeal. I remember when I was compelled to learn Latin that the justification most frequently given for the task was that it would help me to think logically. It is also true that knowledge that is considered useful, important or up-to-date keeps on changing. But in most subjects, there is plenty of knowledge that does not change and more still that will not change for a few decades, at least.

But how did many teachers come genuinely to think that rigorously learning a body of knowledge, particularly in science, is of secondary importance?

Did it start with some theorist of teaching who then got taken up by politicians because they could see the ideas would help them? What were the mechanics of the dismantling of educational standards?

How important was the idea that tough science (and other subjects) are elitist because they are too difficult for less bright students? For those who feel like that, the appeal of the idea of teaching more accessible stuff about evaluation and problem-solving would be strong. But what they did not consider properly was how the clever state school students would be disadvantaged. With the debased science GCSEs, those bright state school students have their career prospects severely damaged.

This is a re-edited version of an entry posted earlier today. My apologies for re-writing it:

Origin of the idea: "teach skills, the knowledge will be irrelevant".

Unfortunately the dominant mode of thinking is that, if the argument makes sense, it is probably true. There is far too little "critical thinking" and use of evidence.

After hearing this line from the ATL union official a few years ago, I went through the GCSE science curriculum to see what could be "out of date" in 20 yrs.

Atoms? Elements? Cells? Expansion? Metals? Energy transfer? You get the picture: none of the basics will change. It's science!!! Its the way we explain the natural world.

On top of this there is clear and irrefutable evidence that trying to teach context-free "skills" does not work. They need to be learned in one context before they can be transferred somewhere else.

I detect an increase in "helplessness" from pupils who claim that the reason for their low marks is "the teacher was rubbish" rather than "I did no work".

I did not expect the dependence culture to get all the way down to the learning process - but I now meet so many "learning disabled" (backed up by "my rights" parents) I despair for them.


Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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January 26, 2010
A prime example of how state schools now reduce social mobility instead of increasing it

The excellent letter below illustrates how state schools now reduce social mobility. The state schools are not allowed to take IGCSEs. But only the IGCSEs offer a rigorous training in science. So only those who have studied the sciences at private schools are in a good position to go on to do well in science A levels, get a good science degree and a science career. And it is not only careers in science per se that are affected but also science-based careers such as medicine. Whole swathes of bright, potential scientists at state schools are handicapped in their chances of getting good science-based careers. It is shocking. And these lives are hampered to suit the views of Left wing politicians.

Fact-free science lessons

SIR – The Government has spent huge sums on a laudable campaign to increase state-school students’ interest in becoming scientists and engineers, while simultaneously distorting the curriculum to make it more “relevant” in ways that make it more difficult to learn enough science to follow it as a career.

Content has been steadily removed in the name of accessibility. That which remains is largely chosen to illustrate wider “societal” themes, without sufficient regard to the theoretical coherence of the science being taught. I am head of science at a comprehensive school and was told at a training day: “It’s all about skills now. They [the students] can look up facts on Google.” Would you want to be treated by a doctor who has spent five years honing evaluation skills instead of mastering tedious old anatomy facts?

The International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE), which does retain a coherent structure, isn’t offered in state schools as it doesn’t conform to the “Science Subject Criteria” (the very cause of the problem). Calls to offer the IGCSE are denounced as “elitist”.

A two-tier system is returning to British education. Are we happy with private-school students learning about electromagnetism, while their peers at comprehensives have to grapple with identifying “the use of evidence and creative thinking by scientists in the development of scientific ideas”?

Andrew Urwin
Umberleigh, Devon

The letter was in today's Telegraph.
(You have to scroll down to find it.)
See also this previous article on science GCSEs.

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January 14, 2010
The government claims that IGCSEs 'don't count'

The refusal of the government to recognise IGCSEs is surely because the Labour Party wants to obscure the fact that the private schools generally vastly outperform government-run schools. It is nothing to do with good government. It is everything to do with propaganda. It is not the first time that the league tables have been fixed to make the private schools appear to be doing less well than they are.

However there is a hope that this time the measure is so obvious that it might backfire. The sight of St Paul's and Winchester and Westminster at the bottom of exam tables will strike all but the most prejudiced observer as being as ridiculous as placing Manchester United and Chelsea at the bottom of the Coca-Cola League Two.

Footnote: We have here another example of how civil servants have been turned into spokesmen for the Labour Party. When questioned about it, the spokesman does not confine himself to explaining government policy. He talks like a party fighter. He calls the argument for counting IGCSEs 'fatuous'. Note also the tone of scorn towards private schools. This is not the language of someone who wants the best for all children in Britain. It is the language of someone who has a political agenda that government schools are a good thing, government frameworks must be of prime importance and private schools deserve no consideration. Here is the final para of the article in the Telegraph:

But a spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: "This is a fatuous argument. The IGCSE does not meet the requirements of the National Curriculum and so it is not approved for use in curriculum in state schools - it would make absolutely no sense for it to be included in the end-of-year tables just because some independent schools choose to offer them."

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October 26, 2009
Where the NHS money goes

Essential reading for understanding how the NHS receives a lot of money from government but is always short of it for spending on healthcare.

There is a very similar story to be told in education, too.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education • NHS • Waste in public services

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What role has the Children's Act in classroom disruption?

A former teacher who was falsely accused by a pupil suggested that one of the reasons for classroom disruption now is the Children's Act. Speaking on Radio 5 Live this morning, he said that the Children's Act meant that any teacher who was accused by a child of doing something wrong was immediately suspended. Teachers were terrified of being accused. He suggested that this was linked with the high rate at which teachers leave the profession.

The solicitor who spoke on the same programme who clearly was involved with children's rights had no sympathy for him and clearly thought that children's rights are a black and white matter on which there is no room for compromise. She might like to consider what damage is done to children by

a) the loss of good teachers.
b) the disruption of classes that would not take place if the teachers were more often able to maintain good discipline.

Good policy in education is surely better decided upon by considering what is in the best interest of children rather than inventing 'rights' and then adhering blindly to them regardless of the consequences.

See also here.

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September 24, 2009
Guess how many children are sent home for disruptive behaviour at school

At Cecil and Nathan's comprehensive, where there is no after-school sport, there are regular fights between boys from rival schools and gangs.

These take place on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. At a nearby comprehensive attended by a 13-year-old called David, they kick off most Friday lunchtimes.

All three boys said the police were rarely called - and then usually only the day after a fight. 'The teachers are scared,' said David with contempt.

Shockingly, both these inner-city schools were passed as 'satisfactory' in their last Ofsted inspection reports.

In fact, Ofsted has branded nearly half the schools in the country 'satisfactory' or worse - so the scale of the problem is clear.

One assistant head shook his head and told me: 'All we're doing is containing the children and keeping them off the streets, and we're barely doing that.'

Last year, classroom disruption was running at record levels, with schools sending home 2,200 children every day.

As well as failing to teach them how to read and write properly, too many schools are failing to protect boys from low-income families, to socialise them and to open up the world to the brightest

More than 200,000 were expelled or suspended the year before for violent, threatening or aggressive behaviour directed at teachers or other pupils.

It is, of course, extremely hard to learn - or teach - in this kind of environment.

This is from one of Harriet Sergeant's recent articles in the Daily Mail.

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September 23, 2009
No literature in French 'A' levels

Last night I went to a school to learn about the 'A' levels that one of my children might do. It was a grim reminder of how central government now dominates education and damages it.

I was told that not one of the examining boards for French 'A' level now sets a single piece of French literature. The students will not read a single French book or play. Instead they will go through a textbook which includes one chapter on literature and three on the environment. This is a sick cocktail of philistinism and eco-propaganda.

I did French 'A' level myself many years ago. In fact I failed it (it was possible to fail in those days). I can't remember all the literature we read but it included the boisterous play, Le Malade Imaginaire, a sinister novel by Francois Mauriac (please excuse the lack of an accent on the first 'c', I don't know how to put it in), beautiful poems by Ronsard and L'Etranger by Camus.

I have no objection to 'A' levels including less literature and more about modern France. But no literature at all? It is absurd. And no history either. Instead, those who are very concerned about the environment have taken over the show. I defend with enthusiasm the right of such people to have their say and for the issues they raise to be discussed in school with all sides of the argument represented. It would obviously be a relevant in Geography. But to push it into every conceivable subject, even languages, is outrageous and shows that such concerns have gone beyond opionions openly debated into being dominating propaganda that no one dares oppose. Propaganda is the enemy of education. Education should be at least in part about challenging received opinions, not about ramming them down throats.

What is more objectionable still is that there is no choice. A school cannot avoid this hugely unbalanced curriculum by changing examining boards. The QCA, apparently, has determined the balance: masses on the environment, nothing on literature.

I came across something similar in History. There central government has determined what periods of history in which countries students will study all over Britain. There is apparently a choice that can be made between the 19th century and the 17th century and these choices involve different countries. But it is still highly prescriptive. This is control freakery verging on totalitarianism. It is obnoxious to anyone who believe education is about enabling the mind to roam. It is absurd to anyone who understands that teachers and children alike are more motivated and excited about the teaching and learning process if they have some choice and control of their what and how the study takes place.

In both these subjects, regret at the changes in the curriculum was freely expressed by the teachers concerned as well as myself. "We were not consulted," the French teacher said sadly.

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July 14, 2009
Ten welfare failures of the Labour administration

Here are ten pretty dramatic assertions about how Labour has affected the welfare of the poor during its twelve years in power. They are extracted from an article by Fraser Nelson in the The Spectator:

1. "Even by Labour’s favourite measure, the Gini index, which measures income gaps across various countries, inequality is at a record high — towering above the levels seen in the Thatcher years."

2. "Scandalously, the poorest 10 per cent now have a disposable income of £87 a week, down from £96 a week eight years ago."

3. "Foreign-born workers account for all net job creation in the private sector since 1997. That is to say, strip out the public sector and there are fewer British-born people in work now than in 1997."

4. "As for youth unemployment, that is now a third higher than when Labour took office."

5. "At no point since Labour came to power has the number on out- of-work benefits fallen below five million."

6. "Of these working-age people, 1.1 million — equivalent to the population of a city the size of Birmingham — have never worked a day in the Labour years."

7. "International surveys show school standards are declining, with the poorest hit worst."

8. "Studies set up in the early Labour years to track progress have in fact tracked decline."

9. "Infant mortality gaps between the rich and poor have — quite extraordinarily — widened under Labour."

10. "Ditto the gulf in life expectancy."

These points are mentioned almost casually in his article. But each is powerful. Assuming they are true, should be far better known. Television and radio interviewers should all be sent a copy to put the points to Labour ministers when they are crowing about their supposed successes. Tory shadows should repeat them frequently.

I would be glad if it were possible to have links to the sources of the data supporting these assertions. Fraser Nelson says in his article: "none of the above figures have [sic] been published by the government - this magazine lodged a request for their release".
It would be good if he would put the sources up online so the assertions could be repeated with confidence.

But the big point, which he makes well, is this: "The Prime Minister's greatest contribution to convervatism... has been to test to destruction the idea that money solves social problems."

And again, "Mr Brown's government spent like no other, and was socially regressive."

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education • General • Parenting • Welfare benefits

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June 01, 2009
Not everyone thinks Obama will make things better

The Cato Institute fears the consequences.

When I was in the USA recently, it seemed that Obama was talking mainly about trying to cap the cost of health insurance. But it still appeared to be very vague. There were meetings and consultations. Nothing definite appeared to have been decided.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education • NHS

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May 30, 2009
Guess where and what this school is

Guess where this sad and ineffective school is and whether it is government-run or private? Does it exist now or in some grimy past?

Every two years, it loses half of its staff, many emergency certified and ill-equipped to deal with teaching in a school where only 6 per cent can read at the expected level.

I was prepared for the security guards, the wire mesh on every window, the self-locking doors and the metal detectors. What I hadn't expected was the total lack of inspiration. There were no signs of welcome, no work on the walls, nothing to denote it as a place of learning - just endless corridors of lockers. Yet, despite the school's appalling reputation, there were no fires blazing, no chairs through windows, just pupils eager to hear if every pupil in England wears a tie and blazer.

They worked quietly, with varying degrees of effort, from a 1,600-page textbook so heavy it could break a foot. The teaching was not good, but I don't want to disparage a fellow teacher as I've no doubt he would have been excellent had he been given more than four weeks' training. He received no support from colleagues and was isolated in his classroom, muddling through planning and assessing students who could barely read.

Is it perhaps in some Third World country struggling with poverty? No it is in one of the richest countries in the world: America. It is a government-run school. (Full article in the TES

Only by having government-run schools is the one of the world's richest countries able to produce education this bad.

One of the persistent myths about the USA is that it is capitalist, red in tooth and claw. In fact it has a massive welfare state in which government-run education has a major role.

There is, however, a puzzle about American education. It is that many wealthy people are perfectly content with the government schools (actually they are operated by the individual states). They do not opt for private schools to the same extent that wealthy people do in Britain. Why?

I am not at all sure.

One factor is, I suspect, precisely that the schools are run by the states not the national government. That means, perhaps especially in the smaller states, that there is a greater sense of local involvement and commitment which helps the morale and operation of the schools.

Secondly, I am beginning to suspect that there is an even greater segregation between good and bad government-run schools in the U.S. than there is here in Britain. Rich people in the right areas have a satisfactorily good local school. The school is filled with the children of ambitious, successful people. The other side of this, of course, is that the government-run schools in the inner cities have a great concentration of children whose parents are not only poor - that does not of itself mean a lack of ambition for their children - but who themselves have had a bad educational and family background. In other words, the ones who really suffer from this educational apartheid are the ones who are already start in an unfortunate position. That of course is the great tragedy of government education: it fails most those whom it was intended to help most.

Thirdly, I wonder whether American private education is increasing? I visited a private school in New York State last year. It was an admirable place. It had been started in the last thirty years with eight or so pupils. Some local farmers had been unsatisfied with the government school and created their own. By the time I visited, the numbers must have been over 100. It is just one anecdote. I would interested for any overall statistics.

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May 26, 2009
Teacher unions write laws to suit themselves

I wonder how many people know that head teachers are only allowed to observe lessons given by a teacher for three hours in any one year?

It is an example of the power of the teacher unions and how they can interfere with the effective management of schools and thus with the best possible education of children.

I only learned this because of a recent article in the Times Educational Supplement:

Michael Gove, the shadow schools secretary, said he would put an end to regulations that constrain normal classroom observations to three hours per year.

“It’s absurd that heads should be legally restricted from entering classrooms in their own schools,” he said. “We need to trust professionals if we want to get the most out of our education system, and that means scrapping regulations like this.”

One of the worrying things is that Mr Gove feels the need to justify his view in the most cautious terms. He is obviously worried about rousing the wrath of these unions. He says that young teachers may need more help. Is it not also possible, that some teachers may be giving weak lessons and should be told to get their act together or be sacked? That is how a good school should be run. Bad teachers should be sacked otherwise the school will not give the best possible education which, lest the unions forget, is the purpose of the exercise. All teachers should know that they have to maintain a standard and that this will be monitored.

The outrageous rule that teachers can only be observed for three hours a year is a very strong example of the 'producer interest' at work - employees organising things for their own benefit rather than that of their customers. It occurs in all organisations but in a state monopoly with strong unions, it runs riot.

It is quite clear that the present Labour government has allowed the unions to play a role in deciding policy on such things:

At present, teachers’ unions - with the exception of the NUT - are consulted by the Government and help to decide policy affecting teachers’ pay and conditions, including the limit on classroom observations.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said the so-called “social partnership” would be under threat if the Conservatives gained office. She issued a warning to Mr Gove to take it seriously.

“He is not committed to any formal structure for the social partnership to take place,” she said. “It’s not inviting the unions in for beer and sandwiches and then telling us what’s going to happen. There is real negotiation.

It is a disgrace that the present government has allowed any union to take a role in deciding policy. It is politically corrupt. The government is elected by the people to decide for the benefit of the people. It is not elected to allow unions to write laws or to allow any interest group to have the privilege to write laws.

This story makes one wonder how many other laws are there that have been written by unions in the decade - in education and perhaps health, too?

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May 11, 2009
Some people think children are behaving better

Sir Alan Steer has claimed that Britain's pupils are better and better behaved, according to the Times Educational Supplement (April 24th). The teachers' trade paper comments that "raised eyebrows and cries of disbelief" greeted Sir Alan's comments. However the paper's commentator, Michael Shaw goes on to support Sir Alan's view.

He says that NUT surveys became more positive about behaviour between 2001 and 2008. He also comments "youth crime also seems to have fallen over the past 15 years, with the proportion of ten to 17-year-olds who are reprimanded, warned or convicted by policy down by 12 per cent since 1992."

He also recommends a book, State Schools Since the 1950s: The Good News, by Adrian Elliott who apparently found that students were four more times likely to truant in the 1950s and he also offers other indications that there was no perfect discipline in a supposed "golden age".

These measurements deserve to be looked at closely. However here is a little anecdotal observation of my own from the other side. Near to me is a well-known comprehensive school in a pretty smart area of London, though many of the students travel in from council homes further out. I often see the children come out of school in the afternoon. At that time I usually see three or four "community police officers" stationed in the street that is nearest. They are clearly there to police the children.

When I have been in the shops nearby, there have sometimes been two or three other officers making sure there is no disruption in that area either. I once saw a shopkeeper angrily shooing off some students who wandered into his shop. I don't think it is too much to guess that he has had trouble with the children before.

Of course, it would not be new for children to shoplift. But when I was young, I went to school near to what was called then a "secondary modern". I often saw students from that school. I never saw a single policeman or any trouble on the streets at all.

Yes, yes. I know this is merely an anecdote and proves nothing. It is just a sliver of evidence. Perhaps more substantial are the figures obtained by David Ruffley, the Conservative police reform minister. He has found that the number of persistent young offenders has increased by 60 per cent over the past decade:

In 2008, there was a total of 15,819 persistent young offenders in England and Wales – up 60 per cent on the 9,868 recorded by police forces in 1997.

The full account is in the Telegraph.

The government minister responded that the figures "are not designed to measure overall trends in youth crime, and will give a misleading picture of the true trend if used for this purpose."

Unfortunately his reasoning for thinking that the figures are misleading has not been reported, or perhaps he gave no reason. In any case, I am afraid I am now sufficiently cynical about government statistics that the only ones I am inclined to trust at all are ones which are not normally cited by anyone and therefore have not been subject to political manipulation. On this basis, these figures obtained by Ruffley may be an excellent indication of the trend. But now attention has been drawn to them, we can expect a remarkable apparent improvement.

Many indicators (quoted in the book) make me confident that children's behaviour has deteriorated in the past 50 years. I strongly suspect that the decline continued in the past decade.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Behaviour & Crime • Education

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April 27, 2009
How the government puts an obstacle in the way of bright state school children getting into the top universities

The Labour Government wants more state school children to get into the top universities but at the same time is putting an obstacle in way of them getting there. It is refusing to fund the more demanding exams for 16 year-olds - the International GCSEs or IGCSEs . These exams stretch pupils and make them better qualified to go on to the top universities.

Why on earth would the government try to stop children from less well-off families getting to the top universities? Because, I suppose, it is politically determined never to admit that the GCSEs have been dumbed down. Or perhaps, more likely, it is because the government wants to maintain the fiction that all state schools offer a realistic chance to their pupils of getting into the top universities. The governments wants parents to think that if all children are taking the same exams, then surely they all have a chance of getting in. Of course this is rubbish. And it comes from politics. Clever children at the best state schools suffer as a result. Therefore the Labour government, for political reasons, acts to prevent children from less well-off families having the best chance of getting into top universities.

The information quoted below comes from the Times Educational Supplement Magazine. Note the remarkable rise in the numbers of students at private schools now taking the IGCSEs. The top state schools are prevented from following suit.

So far the retreat from the GCSE has been confined to private schools. When one state school, Bexley Grammar in Kent, announced last year that it planned to offer the International GCSE, an alternative that focuses on final exams rather than coursework or modules, it was barred from doing so. Even though Ofqual, the qualifications regulator, has since approved IGCSEs in 15 subjects, the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) has not agreed to fund it, so it cannot yet be offered in state schools.

Rod MacKinnon, the former head of Bexley Grammar who moved to the fee- paying Bristol Grammar School last summer, says his issue is not with the GCSE as such, but he feels it may not suit some pupils in some subjects. At Bexley, Mr MacKinnon tried to introduce IGCSE science on the grounds that the GCSE equivalent did not stretch the most able children. “It is a reputable examination, but my view was that in Bexley’s context, the IGCSE was more appropriate for some pupils.”

Bristol Grammar, his new school, offers the IGCSE in maths, on the basis that it provides a more challenging syllabus. The IGCSE includes calculus, for example, which pupils do not have to study for the GCSE. The school is considering offering the IGCSE in English.

The GCSE was introduced to fuse together its predecessors, O-level and CSE, into one course designed to suit children of all abilities. But Mr MacKinnon suggests it is time to accept the one-size-fits-all approach has not worked. “There are lots of really good arguments why we would want one exam for everybody, but in reality we’re not able to stretch the full ability range.”

He believes giving schools and pupils the choice of exams is a logical extension of personalised learning. If learning is to be tailored to each child’s needs, then why make everyone sit the same exam? “There is nothing profoundly essential about having one exam,” he says. “I can’t see why it should be a problem having two or three different styles.”

Much of the flight away from GCSEs has been towards the IGCSE. This year, almost half - 46 per cent - of private schools are offering at least one IGCSE, up from 34 per cent last year. Edexcel, one of two exam boards administering them, reports that the number of candidates taking the exam has almost doubled in two years, from 45,000 in 2006 to 85,000 last year. Cambridge Assessment, the other board offering IGCSEs, is coy about releasing figures, but will admit to a 20 per cent increase in entries this year.

Incidentally, the quality of coverage of education (and medical services) in the newspapers seems to have deteriorated substantially in recent years. The Daily Telegraph used to have a superb pair of journalists writing daily on education matters. As newspapers have cut back on staff in recent years, coverage of politics has been maintained but coverage of the welfare state has suffered badly.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education • Media, including BBC bias

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March 27, 2009
Teachers having lunch with school-children

A discussion on the radio this week centred on lunches for children at schools. How healthy are they? How easily can the children leave school and eat at the local chip shop? Then someone said that the teachers often did not not superintend the lunches in school. Or, if they did, they then were entitled to take a long break. It sounds unlikely but I thought a two-hour break was mentioned.

What a contrast there is between this idea and what I have seen at two private schools - one in Britain and one in America. Most notable was the private school in New York State where, I think, all the teachers had lunch with the children and, even better, each teacher went to a separate round dining table so that he or she would talk with the children on that table. It must surely be the case that this is a civilising practice for the children. They are more likely to learn the boundaries of good behaviour and more likely to have sensible and even, occasionally, educational discussions.

When I visited this school last year, I sat on one of these round tables with the headmaster on my left and children on my right. Doubtless it was no accident that the child I was placed next to was extraordinarily bright. He told me his favourite subject was history and he preferred European to American history because it was longer and richer. He must have been about 13 or 14, I think. Of course, the school did not make him as clever as he was but it certainly enabled him to thrive.

The other school, in Britain, was Hampton Court House in South London where the teachers ate with the children. This was entirely informal, I think, and children could avoid being with teachers if they wanted to. But I got the impression that they were perfectly happy having lunch with teachers and, again, this must surely be a civilising influence. Children can learn about history and science in class. But at lunch, any subject can be discussed and the child can have the benefit of the perspective of an educated adult.

The private boarding school that I attended had no teachers present at meals and it was pretty shambolic. I guess that many private schools would benefit from having the teachers present at meals. I would not be surprised if among the government-run schools there is more of a rule that teachers cannot be obliged to go to lunch with students. I would also guess it was pressed for by the teachers' union. I would welcome any information on this.

If that indeed is the case, it would be an example of teacher union power being used to the detriment of the interests of the children.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Behaviour & Crime • Education

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February 10, 2009
The wonderful world of target-land

Last night I learned of a wonderful absurdity in the world of government monopoly education.

As pretty well everyone will know, head teachers in the government-controlled sector live and die by targets. Their careers depend on them. One of the targets is high attendance.

Then came the snow last week. Most schools in London were closed on the Monday. But more schools managed to open on the Tuesday. Now you might think that those schools whose head teacher and staff struggled into work for the benefit of the children in their care were particularly conscientious. Not in target-land however. They were mugs. Since their schools were open, the many absences of children from their schools on that snowy day will count against them when it comes to calculating how good their attendance figures have been. But those schools which stayed shut will be deemed to have been shut because of exceptional circumstances and their attendance figures will not be affected at all.

So the conscientious schools that opened will be punished with bad attendance figures. The less conscientious schools that stayed shut will be rewarded with high attendance figures. Thus does the state give perverse incentives.

Similarly, the government encourages schools to adopt a warm, welcoming spirit to those of minority faiths. At the same time, any school which has Muslim children will have days when many of the children are absent because of the Eid - the Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. So on the one hand the government says, "be welcoming and understanding of minority faiths". On the other hand it effectively says, "Do everything you can to upset Muslim families by trying to stop Muslim children being absent on Eid days or, failing that, hit your attendance targets better by accepting as few Muslim children as you can".

These examples are just a small part of the madness of target-land. The world works largely on the basis of incentives. If the incentives are perverse, the results often are too.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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December 23, 2008
Private tuition boosts the performance of top state schools

I argued in The Welfare State We're In that the performance of many grammar schools in Britain is boosted by heavy oversubscription for places (far higher than for most private schools), the high social class of many of the parents and private tuition. In the sense that there is a great deal of private tuition, part of 'state education' is not actually done by the state at all. It is supplied by the private market. This was very publicly the case with one of the children of the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair. The boy was tutored by a teacher at Westminster, one of the outstanding private schools in Britain.

Yesterday there was further evidence of the role of private tuition in state education:

In the latest poll, market researchers GfK NOP surveyed parents of children at some of England's 164 remaining grammar schools.

The survey - for the BBC - revealed 81 per cent of parents coached sons or daughters to pass the entrance test.

Half paid for private tutors and the remainder taught children themselves at home.

Those using hired help spent an average of £700 on fees - receiving 90 minutes of tuition every week.

Research by Professor Brendan Bunting, psychologist at Ulster University, has found pupils coached for nine months improved their 11-plus scores by 40 per cent.

This research referred to students getting tuition in order to get into the grammar schools. It seems highly likely that a high proportion of grammar school children also receive private tuition to help them get better results in their public exams.

The full article is here.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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November 27, 2008
Science GCSE dumbing down

Several newspapers report on the assertion that science GCSEs are easier than the equivalent "O" levels were in the 1960s. Here is the Daily Mail version which includes a great question from the 1960s.

Even I could get all three questions from the recent paper right. They are questions that almost anyone who is literate with a little bit of general knowledge could answer. Increasingly the better schools in the private sector take International GCSEs in preference to the devalued ordinary ones.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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October 17, 2008
The failure of state education - some recent figures

Extracts from article on GCSE results this summer:

One in six pupils finished 11 years of compulsory schooling without achieving a single C grade in any subject.

This summer only 382,228 took GCSEs in languages - down from 559,115 in 2002.

Fewer than a quarter of state schools require GCSE students to learn languages, according to a report last year.
It found they are fast becoming the preserve of grammar and fee-paying schools as many comprehensives allow them to decline to 'extremely low levels'.

84,900 students - 13 per cent - failed to secure one GCSE grade D

The gulf between independent schools and state comprehensives continued, with almost one in three pupils at fee-paying schools - 30.3 per cent - emerging with three As at A-level, against 7.6 per cent at comprehensives.

The above is from a Daily Mail article here.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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February 27, 2008
"95% of the young men called for National Service after the war were found to be literate"

Last night I attended an Intelligence Squared debate in London on the subject: "All schools, state as well as private, should be allowed to select their own pupils".

Lord Tebbit, one of the speakers, said that when he did National Service after the war, this was a time when the literacy of every young man was tested. He said that 95% of the young men called for National Service were found to be literate - and that despite the enormous dislocation to education that resulted from the war. This compares with some 20% of the present population who are now said by the government to be "functionally illiterate".

He was using this statistic to support his argument that the reduction of selection since the war had damaged state education. I would be glad to obtain chapter and verse on this. If the figure stands up well, it is very important since it indicates more clearly than any other fact one is likely to discover that the quality of state education has been on a declining path.

In this case it would fit in with my main contention on education, that state education has been a disaster for Britain and has deteriorated more the longer it has gone on. In the 1940s, there were plenty of genuinely independent church secondary schools and many primary schools had not been in the hands of governnent for very long.

Lord Tebbit went on to suggest that all state schools should be denationalised and handed over, I think he said, to charitable trusts. Most of the vast bureaucratic superstructure of local authority and central government would be removed. There would be vouchers which would be worth more for those children with difficulties. This, he suggested, would transform our low standards of education as schools competed for custom and parents could genuinely make choices.

The motion was clearly carried. Before the debate, there were 339 votes for, 200 against and 152 abstentions. After the debate, there were 451 for, 202 against and 48 abstentions.

For myself, I regard the argument over selection and, in particular, grammar schools as a distraction from the most important point about education: that nationalisation of education has been a disaster and should be reversed.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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February 13, 2008
There is only one Arsenal (and one Chelsea and one Manchester United)

One small part of the cultural decline of Britain consists of the way in which newspapers now have sentences such as this: "Chelsea fall behind in title race".

This is the use of a verb in the plural with a singular noun. The sentence should read: "Chelsea falls behind in title race". There is only one Chelsea. The fact that it is a collective noun is irrelevant. It is still singular as any grammar book will confirm.

The use of plural verbs with singular nouns can - and is - defended as being one of those developments of the English language which naturally takes place over the years. Yes, indeed it is. Not many years ago, the Daily Express, of all papers still held out against it. But now I believe it has given way. Or, "Now they have given way" as many people would write these days.

But my view is that this is not simply a development of the English language that is arbitrary and means nothing. It is a change which reflects the failure of schools in Britain to teach much grammar for the past thirty years or so. That is why the change has taken place. It is a result of the inferior education which millions of people have experienced in recent decades. It is also an example of the way in which culture can travel from the least educated upwards as well as from the most educated down.

I am sure that all the top people in the BBC are well enough educated to know that it is bad grammar to write, "Charlton Athletic have announced that they have called off takeover talks with potential investors." (Link here.) But presumably they sanctioned the change. They felt that this was now common usage and that they should follow it, even though it was wrong. Thus has our written culture been formed by the least literate. Does any heroic newspaper still hold out against bad grammar?

I thought I might check out the Times of India. Yes, it has this sentence in the current online edition: "Arsenal has kicked ahead in the Premier League title race". Ah! Marvellous. A verb in the singular. What a relief. (Link here.) But unfortunately the headline for the same story is, "Arsenal make big move in Premier League title race." So the Times of India is not wholly holding the line against the poor grammar taking over the former 'mother country'.

How about The Times here in London. Does it cling to correct grammar? No. From today's online edition: "Arsenal have thrived while Chelsea are running run out of steam in the absence of Drogba". (Link here.)Dear, oh dear. It is a long way from the days when the advertisement used to read, "Top people take The Times".

I know that I have probably made a number of grammatical errors in writing this post. I know, too, that whenever someone writes about grammar, there is nothing more pleasurable than pointing out his or her grammatical failings. I have prepared myself to suffer such blows. It will be worth it for the pleasure of writing, as I have long wanted to, about this change - no, this deterioration - in the writing of English.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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November 27, 2007
There are more graduates than jobs for them, so there is no need on economic grounds to make more of them

The government continues to suggest - without much objection from most of the media who simply assume it must be true - that this country must do everything possible to increase the number of graduates. The theory is that this is an information society where an increasing number of people who want jobs need to have higher level skills and education.

The first skill which state welfare in Britain is failing to teach to as many as one in five children is the ability to read. Undaunted by this failure, the government likes to imagine that the wholesale increase in university places has been a 'good thing' and there should be much more of it.

The specific argument of the government is that this expansion of places is necessary on economic grounds (not cultural or to further individual well-being). It is this ground that is demonstrably absurd for a number of reasons described in The Welfare State We're In. Now comes further evidence. High numbers of those who go to university either do not want or cannot get jobs that reflect the level of education they have received. There is no apparent desperate shortage of graduates. There is no apparent need, therefore, to make more of them. Not on economic grounds, anyway.

One in three graduates ends up in a job that does not require a degree, researchers have found.

Art, design and humanities graduates and those from former polytechnics have the worst job prospects, while students of vocational courses, such as law, medicine and teacher training, are most likely to find degree-level jobs.

This is from the Telegraph a few days ago. And again:

In 1992, one in five male graduates was engaged in non-graduate work at the age of 25.

But by last year, the number had risen to more than one in three. Among women, the proportion rose from one in four to just under one in three. Among creative and arts graduates, almost six out of 10 ended up in jobs for which they were over-qualified, as did 30 per cent of English and humanities graduates.

Meanwhile, only one in 10 who did vocational courses took on non-graduate jobs, while the figure was one in five among those who did maths and sciences.

Researchers at Kent University found graduates of former polytechnics were three times more likely to end up in a job for which they were over-qualified compared to their Oxbridge counterparts.

The full article is here.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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June 22, 2007
147,000 pupils a year fail to get any GCSEs of grade C or better

The true scale of the failure of state education in Britain is reported only rarely. That, in itself, is a subject of interest. But today is one of those rare days when truly important figures providing evidence of this failure are on at least one front page.

This is an excerpt:

A quarter of teenagers are leaving school with practically nothing to show for 11 years of compulsory education, a report discloses today.

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.

The findings, in a report published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, come just weeks after head teachers warned that schools were producing an "army of the unemployable'' as tens of thousands of teenagers quit education at 16 with no qualifications.

Mick Brookes, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the Government's over-emphasis on testing and targets was fuelling truancy rates and causing children to skip exams and slide into delinquency.

The report criticises primary schools for failing to help children early enough - and says secondary schools often entrench disadvantage.

It says working class pupils are more likely to attend worse-performing secondary schools, which will be seen as an explicit criticism of government reforms.

Researchers also warn that the Government's obsession with league tables had "adverse effects for low achievers.

(full story in Daily Telegraph)

It is easy to be distracted by relatively minor facts and the major, central ones can go unreported for most of the time and forgotten. But this is truly important and should be stuck on the computer screens of every education journalist: 147,000 children each year fail to get a single grade C or above in their GCSEs.

It is shocking. It is a dreadful failure of state education. It should be a scandal which reverberates year after year, as the scandal of NHS waiting lists used to do. I do not blame the present Labour government in particular for this - though it has probably made its contribution to the lower of achievement. It is the fault of having education supplied by a state monopoly. State monopolies tend to be incompetent. They tend to put in the wrong incentives for many of those involved including parents and children as well as heads, teachers and the vast, uncounted army of non-teachers employed in education by central government, quangos and local authorities.

Anyone who cares about education in general and particularly the life chances of those in the lowest quarter of society, should be demanding the abolition of state education as we know it. It condemns thosuands of children to illiteracy and makes them more likely to become alienated delinquents as they are forced to stay in education despite having lost all interest in it.

Why, then, is this failure of state education so rarely written and talked about? There are a variety of reasons. One is that those of us in the media tend to be middle-class. We are not the ones primarily damaged by the failure. Middle-class newspapers, particularly, just are not that interested.

A second, perhaps more important, reason is that education correspondents, with a few honourable exceptions, tend to 'go native'. They go for civilised briefings from well-intentioned civil servants and politicians. They thus tend to be sucked into the official view of how things are going. They read hundreds of optimistic government press releases.

Thirdly, there is a desire to believe that state education is a 'good thing'. Evidence to the contrary is seen briefly and then put to one side and forgotten.

All these are human reactions. Quite unexceptional. But it can also be seen as negligence - negligence in reporting the truth.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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March 19, 2007
"Most" children in Naples go to private primary schools

I have just spent eight days in Naples. My daughter and I stayed at a flat in a relatively poor part of the City with a young couple. (They advised us not to wear good watches or carry credit cards or any substantial amount of cash.) The wife told me to that "most" children in Naples go to private primary schools. The children on the floor above with whom my daughter played - offspring of a family of modest means - were at a private school.

"Why?" I asked.

She said it was because the government schools were not 'secure'. There were children there who were aggressive. There were knives.

This seems to be the turning point for many parents around the world. I think it is often very difficult for parents to see that their child is getting a poor education. But they quite clearly grasp and react to any physical danger to their children.

The wife is not an educationalist and there was no sign of any newspapers in the house. So, while liking and respecting her greatly, I would not use the information she gave me as evidence in a book or article. It needs to be investigated and confirmed. But it interesting, as an anecdote at least, that there are people who are not rich at all, in Italy, who send their children to private schools.

She said it was quite different in Sicily, where she comes from. There, most children go to the government schools. Implicitly, the schools are safe there. She also said, more puzzlingly, that in Naples most children do go to the government schools at the secondary school stage. Her explanation was that, by then, the good children have learnt to cope with the bad children. I think that definitely needs more investigation.

The price paid for the schooling seemed incredibly low. She said it was 140 Euros a month and that the children went from 8.15 to 4.00 for that price. The cost was much lower if they left a few hours earlier. I wondered how on earth the cost could be so low.

It is a pity that, as far as I know, there is no on writing about the failure of state education in advanced countries. James Tooley writes about its failure in poorer countries. But there is another big story out there. If anyone has the time to find out more about the numbers using private schools in Italy, I would be fascinated to learn more.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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March 07, 2007

To my astonishment, James Tooley and I this evening won a debate in which we proposed the motion: "this house believes that state education has failed". The debate took place at the English Speaking Union, in London. The voting was 48 in favour and 12 against.

The contribution that struck me most came from a woman who said she had been teaching in adult education for twenty years. She said she had noticed a significant change in her students. Now, three out of four of them had trouble with reading. They also had a poor understanding of grammar and punctuation. So instead of getting into analysing the works of Shakespeare, she was having to spend time helping with these basic literacy problems.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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February 27, 2007
"Young people in the UK today, particularly from the state schools, are not able to get the qualifications to come to a place like this"

This interview with Richard Sykes, head of Imperial College, is another reflection of how disastrous Britain's state education has been:

Sitting in his neat office in Imperial's main administration building - a dizzying cube of blue glass that hovers at the centre of the South Kensington campus - he still gets worked up at the thought of the new GCSE. "It's superficial stuff, fine for the general populous, but where are these people who are going to be the drivers and leaders of tomorrow? How are they going to do their A-levels if they're never getting the grounding of the single subjects?"

His tirade against falling standards is backed up by a count of those he welcomes to his college every year. "More and more come from outside the UK: 30% of our students now come from outside the EU and 50% come from outside the UK. What we're doing is educating the elite of the world, not the elite of the UK. Young people in the UK today, particularly from the state schools, are not able to get the qualifications to come to a place like this."

The full article is in the Guardian (see also the entry below).

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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Direct and clear from Terence Kealey
What is the point of David Cameron if he is going to send his children to maintained schools? Why have a Tory leader who leads his children towards an underperforming nationalised industry?

We have had universal free state education in Britain for more than a century, yet swaths of our population remain uneducated. The government's own Moser report of 1999 found that one in five adults was functionally illiterate (given the Yellow Pages, they could not find the page for plumbers).

And this section is to the point:

Cameron should advocate vouchers for the UK. He may have found a good maintained school but, by sending his children there, he has ignored the many pupils who leave school functionally illiterate and innumerate.

The full article - in the Guardian(!)- is here.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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January 11, 2007
Fewer than half of children get five GCSEs including maths and English

Figures have now been released which provide further evidence that the supposed improvement in educational standards under the current administration is not what it has been claimed to be. Fewer than half of children manage to get five GCSEs that include maths and English.

Overall the pass rate drops from 56 per cent achieving five A* to C grade passes to 45 per cent once maths and English are included.

The full Telegraph story is here.

The only thing that surprises me is that a government that has been so keen to mislead the public for so long about its achievements in education should now be releasing these figure.


The BBC website has slightly different figures. The following story also shows that the performance of state schools looks even worse once they are separated from the independent schools:

The tables confirm that, across the country, 45.8% of pupils at the end of Key Stage 4 of the national curriculum attained the equivalent of five GCSEs at grade C or above including English and maths.

The director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, David Frost, said this figure was "shocking".

The tables, compiled by the Department for Education and Skills, provide a school-by-school breakdown of those national averages.

In 114 schools every pupil achieved the new English and maths benchmark - 34 of them state schools, the rest in the independent sector.


New benchmark includes English and maths GCSEs

43.8% of pupils in state schools attained it

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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January 02, 2007
State education has left us with millions of people unable even to read well enough to sing karaoke

This short, simple story below - from the Independent - really brings home how badly state education has failed:

Millions 'cannot read well enough for karaoke'

By Paul Bignell

Published: 17 December 2006

Millions of adults have such poor reading skills that they will struggle to keep up with karaoke lyrics at Christmas parties this year, government research has found.

Research for the Department for Education's Get On campaign found classic songs like Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" require the reading skills expected of an 11-year-old, lacked by more than 5.2 million adults. Other karaoke hits, such as "Angels" by Robbie Williams, pose a harder challenge, which nearly 18 million adults will fail.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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December 20, 2006
A good lesson in a state school

I sat in on a class at a state primary school recently. I have been a severe critic of state education and I remain so. But I aim to be honest even when evidence appears that is against me. I have to say that the class I saw was nothing but exemplary.

There were 30 children in it. They were attentive. The teacher was respectful of them but also maintained his authority. The class was designed to help them look critically at their own compositions and improve on them. That seems to me a worthwhile thing to do and it was very well done.

It is true that the teacher knew well in advance that I was coming. So perhaps I got a better lesson than average. But I am not inclined to be sceptical. Most of the class was interactive and it would have been difficult to 'fix' a good class of that sort.

State education has been, in my view, a terrible mistake. But it is fair to say that sometimes there are genuinely excellent classes.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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December 08, 2006
There are two sides to the global warming argument

I have previously suggested that schools are teaching that global warming is a major threat and that it is caused by human beings. I have suggested that this should be called propaganda, not education, since there continues to be debate among scientists about the truth of these assertions. Some people have suggested that no, there is no real debate. So I link here to a speech in the US Senate on the subject. I am no expert in global warming but it sounds like a debate to me.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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December 07, 2006
The Conservatives want to give power to the teachers

I heard George Osborne, for the Conservatives, saying on the radio yesterday that his party would improve schools by giving them independence. He would give back schooling to teachers.

I am not fully up to speed with current Conservative policy on education. But I would observe that giving independence to schools and giving power to teachers would - if that were the only change - be very risky and potentially damaging. If you give untrammelled power to the producer interest (teachers, in this case), then the consumers (the parents and their children) are likely to suffer. Teachers could indulge their pet theories regardless of exam performance or achieving what the parents want schools to achieve.

Independence and autonomy can be very important in causing schools to do better. But it is vital that is combined with consumer choice. For consumer choice to be a reality, instead of just political talk, the schools would have be 100% independent and capable of going bust.

Schools should be free but they need an incentive to be good and to do what the parents want. That requires competition between them and choice for the consumer. Politically, it is almost impossible for a school to go bust in the state system. So to ensure real competition, we would need, essentially, the end of most state schools and the replacement of state ownership by the ownership of independent trusts, charities and commercial companies.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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December 06, 2006
Raising the school-leaving age would be crazy

It should not be difficult to spot the flaw in the argument for making all children stay at school until they are 18. It is contained within the first two, short paragraphs of the news story in the Daily Telegraph:

Teenagers should be forced by law to stay in school or training up to the age of 18, the review of skills ordered by Gordon Brown said yesterday.

More than one in six young people leave school unable to read, write and add up properly and the proportion of 16- year-olds staying on in full time education in the UK is below the average for developed countries, it said.

To put the same information in a different way, this advisory body suggests that children whom Britain's state schools have failed to teach even to read and write should be compelled to stay at those schools for an extra two years.

This is absurd. You might call it 're-inforcing failure'. This is an idea according to which, if you have a system for climbing a mountain which does not work, then you should be made to go on using it.

The damaging consequences of increasing the school-leaving age are serious. We already know - in a big and undeniable way - that many of those children whom state schools have failed even to teach how to read and write, are disenchanted by school. It would be surprising if anything else were the case.

We also know that such children - especially the boys - are the ones who are likely to establish gangs within the school, to disrupt lessons, to bully, to truant and to commit crimes. This is already a major problem. An astonishingly high proportion of street crime is already committed by children of school age in school hours.

What would be the effect of keeping even bigger boys at school who are disenchanted by the experience and who have not even learned to read and write and who have already formed gangs and become juvenile delinquents? It would undoubtedly be to breed bigger and more dangerous young men present in school. It is not an exageration to say that the crime rate in Britain would increase. More teachers would be too frightened to even attempt to exercise authority. More knives and drugs would be brought into school. More lessons would be disrupted. At present, those who stay on are the keener ones. They have a better chance to make progress in those two years because the disenchanted ones have left. That chance would be seriously endangered by this proposal.

Raising the school-leaving age is a seriously bad idea.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Behaviour & Crime • Education

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November 22, 2006
The prevalence of private tutoring

Which country is this about? "We argue that the prevalent private tutoring is a market response to the government's rigid and uniform education policy".

Is it Britain? Certainly in Britain, private tutoring is now 'prevalent'. It is used by parents of children at all sorts of schools - perhaps most frequently of all by ambitious, well-off parents who send their children to what they hope are the best government schools but who realise that the education their children are getting - while wonderfully cheap (free) - is not always so very good. So they pay for tutors to try to get their children into better universities.

It is easy to think of an example of this: Mr and Mrs Blair hired tutors for their children. Not any old tutors for them but tutors from Westminster, one of the best private schools in Britain. So in this country, the Prime Minister, while ostensibly a great believer in state education, has found it inadequate and paid for private education on the side.

But Britain is not the country in question. The government of the country does its best to squash private education. But...

"Unsatisfied demand for education by parents and students in a highly regulated educational environment has resulted in an enormous increase in private tutoring despite government's strong policy measures to reduce it."

It is a fascinating example of private education flourishing in face of government opposition. The government tries to ban it but the people, finding state education so inadequate (like Mr Blair) go for it anyway.

This is a link to an academic paper on the subject which refers, incidentally, to private education in other countries around the world. In the narrow debate in Britain, people often assume that Britain is unique and strange in having private education. Actually private education occurs all around the world and for the obvious reason. State education tends not to be good enough. In some places - in certain schools in America, for example - government education is morally and physically dangerous.

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November 08, 2006
"Doh!" science

Some of the science in the national curriculum is what could be called 'doh!' science. It consists of statements which, though perfectly true, do not greatly advance a child's understanding of the world.

In my home-educating I cover the science in the national curriculum in case my daughter should need, at some time, to take a test in it. Most of the science in the national curriculum is fine - how plants reproduce themselves and 'what makes you ill?' are well worthwhile. But there are also parts which are either statements of the obvious or else consist of defining and categorising rather than teaching something scientific.

For example, in my Schofield and Sims revision guide for Key Stage 2 science (one of the better such guides), there is a double-page spread on 'materials and their uses'. In this, we learn that "Windows are made from glass because it is transparent and hard". I would suggest that the appropriate reaction to this information is 'doh!'.

A similar reaction is called for in response to the information that "Tables and cupboards are made from wood because it is hard and strong". The creators of the national curriculum are trying to teach children that different materials have different 'properties'. In short, some things are hard, some are soft. Some are flexible and some are brittle. Well, that is certainly true. But how many children did not realise this? How many did not know that a steel knife is stronger than a woollen one? How many children, even in the most backward areas, try to cut their food with a knife made of sponge?

Another example: 'The human life cycle' has a pretty high 'doh!' rating. In this guide it appears on page 16 and informs children that you start off young, become an adult and then get older. (Death is tactfully left out.) Well, well. Fancy that.

It is tempting to laugh. But for the teachers who must teach this and the children who must listen and carefully write out: "Your body changes as you get older", it must be dreadfully tedious.

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November 06, 2006
You can't trust 'value added' by schools

A head teacher of a primary school told me tonight, 'schools are lying' about the results for their tests of young children. Young children take SATS tests (in year 2, I think). Children are then tested again in year 6. The government uses the figures to create tables of 'value added' by schools. The idea is to measure how good the schools are at improving the educational standards of children. The reason the government introduced this was not unreasonable: to give credit to those schools which have an intake from difficult backgrounds yet which manage to improve the educational performance of such children.

But, as with many government tests and targets, ways have been found to manipulate them and render them unreliable, perhaps even meaningless.

A head teacher told me today that schools with 'good' intakes (i.e. middle class children with English as their first language) 'lie' about the results of the first assessment. They mark the results down. He named three primary schools in London which, he argued, had absurdly low marks for their Key Stage 1 assessments. Judging by their names, these were Church of England or Catholic schools (in the state sector).

By marking down their results for younger children, these schools could easily achieve a big improvement by year 6. So their 'value added' looked good. But the whole thing was a farce and an illusion. The obvious implication of what he said was don't trust 'value added' tables.

Incidentally, how does a school mark down its test results? According to a colleague of the head's, the Key Stage 1 test calls for quite subjective judgements by a teacher of a child's command of English and his or her knowledge of the world. If that is right, it would be easy to assess young Jonathan as having only a modest command of English, compared, at least, to Benedict or Charles, his companions at St Toff's school in Belgravia.

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October 10, 2006
The teaching of history as dictated by government

One of the problems with the state take-over of education is that a single way of doing things is prescribed. This happened with the learning of reading. Teachers were told to use the 'whole word' method of teaching. It plainly did not work well at all. It has resulted in millions of children now being 'functionally illiterate'. It has been a disaster.

Another, less serious, example of government prescribing one way of doing things is the current way in which children are taught history. This, from yesterday's Times, gives a good explanation and critique of it:

David Starkey, the television historian and a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, said that A levels were too often taught as if they were miniature degrees, with so much analysis crammed in that the periods they covered had to be cut short into “tiny gobbets of chewed-up material”.

He said: “There is no point in doing merely a fragment in time with no sense of what might have led up to events and what consequences flowed from them. At the moment, pupils study a bit of American history and a bit of Hitler. That’s almost useless.” Dr Starkey said that it was absurd that the main history syllabus covering Hitler stopped in 1939. “There is no Second World War and no Holocaust. This approach does a lot of damage. It glamorises Hitler. You have to ask yourself, what is the point of studying it at all?”

He was equally critical of how syllabuses tackled Henry VIII and the Reformation, his own specialist period. “With Henry VIII, the syllabus covers 1502 to 1529. It stops when things get interesting. The other part of the syllabus covers 1529 to 1547 — the interesting bit. This is an absurd fragmentation. It leaves no space to take a step back and discuss what came before or after.

“History, if properly taught, should give people a sense of time and a map of time. You should be able to place yourself in time,” he said.

Dr Starkey said that teaching also placed far too much emphasis on the science of gathering evidence for historical events, an approach known as the discovery method.

“Teachers use the discovery method to teach when the Norman Conquest was. We know when it was. What’s the point in having a teacher if not to tell the students what the facts are?” He added that the study of original documents and the search for evidence should not come until university level.

Dr Starkey also despaired of the way his own works and those of other historians were used in schools, with teachers focusing increasingly on historiography — the study of the way history is written — rather than history itself.

“A-level students would not be able to tell you what happened at the beginning of the Civil War, but they would be able to tell you what (the historian) Conrad Russell thought about the Civil War,” he said.

I agree with Starkey that it is worth studying some history before going on to historiography. Not that there is anything wrong with historiography. It is an interesting and worthwhile thing to study. But the government has simply gone too far with the idea of teaching it.

The troubles that arise when the government decides what should be taught (and how) keep on mounting up. The government makes mistakes. There is a kind of totalitarianism about it which is repellent in itself. Education and intellectual activity should be open and involve debate and different ideas. Let a thousand flowers bloom. Don't let us have a government deciding what is good education and what is bad.

It is worrying that people should have so much confidence in governments as to think they are bound to be right. Firstly the evidence is against governments. Second, what happened to the spirit of freedom and independence that used to be so strong in western civilisation? Third, it is through experiment, variety and opportunity for independent action that new ideas and methods come through.

Reverting to the particular point about the teaching of history, I have noticed in bookshops that there are quite a few histories of the world for sale. Publishers are responding to a desire among people to know the narrative of the history of the world as a whole. It is natural for people to want know where they stand in time and space.

I should add that there are some perfectly good things about the teaching of history today. I think it is quite reasonable to learn about how the Romans and Egyptians lived. That is something that did not exist when I was a child. History-teaching in the 1950s and 1960s also tended to concentrate too much on small periods of time. It was mimicking the activities of academics. It was failing to give students an understanding of 'the big picture'. So I do not look back to a 'golden period' of history teaching. But I do think that modern history teaching has chucked out too much of the narrative and too many of the facts.

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October 06, 2006
'Green' propaganda in schools

There is a great deal of 'green' propaganda in schools these days. It is concentrated in geography classes but also reaches into science lessons, school assemblies and even drama classes.

My younger daughter, prior to being home-educated, had a drama class in which she was told to hug a tree. She understood that this was because trees were precious and in danger.

My other daughter, on one occasion, had a school assembly in which there was a presentation on renewable energy and then she went into her first lesson of the day, a science class, in which the subject was, lo and behold, renewable energy again.

Of course, you can teach children about renewable energy in a wholly scientific way. But it would be naive of us, surely, to think that this subject is being taught without there being a 'sub-text'. The sub-text is either that our non-renewable energy is running out in a way that should give us considerable concern or else that burning non-renewable energy is a danger to the planet through global warming.

Again, of course it would be possible to examine the merits of these concerns. But that is not what actually happens in schools. In my experience, children are only given one side of the story. They are told that the non-renewable energy is running out quickly. They are told that burning fossil fuels is causing a present danger to the planet. They are told that forests are vital to the survival of the planet and that they are being quickly depleted (by ruthless capitalists, if the propaganda is really running hot).

This is not education. This is propaganda.

A vital part of education is learning to assess opposing sides of a argument. But when it comes to green issues, the children are not even told that there is an argument at all. That is why it should be termed 'propaganda'.

I recently have started using the well-known book, The Skeptical Evironmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg as the basis for countering some of the propaganda my younger daughter has already received. In doing this, I hasten to add, I emphasise to my daughter that there is considerable disagreement about these matters.

In the section on forests, Lomborg states that in the previous 50 years before publication (in 2001), contrary to the assertions of various people and organisations, the total area of land covered by woods and forests barely changed at all. He cites figures produced by the United Nations.

When it comes, specifically, to tropical forests, he states that the best estimate is that the area covered by them decreased at a rate of 0.46 per cent a year in the previous 15 years. Again, he cites United Nations figures in his analysis.

I don't say that Mr Lomborg's analysis is right. I am not an expert in the area at all and do not pretend to be. But he is a man with considerable credibility on the subject. I tell my daughter that his view is clearly not shared by others. We write down in our summaries that these facts are claimed by him and we describe the source of his information. It is a beginning, I hope, of an a true sense of enquiry after truth. It gives her, I hope, some notion that one needs to compare evidence. These things, I suggest, are quite different from what many schools are now teaching when the subject has any connection with the environment.

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September 25, 2006
Why I am having a go at home-educating my daughter

The following is not directly on the subject of this blog. It is the unedited draft of an article that appeared in the Spectator the week before last about home-educating my daughter. But it does contain, among other things, some of my concerns about how education has developed in Britain. It seems to me that the state's influence has extended increasingly from the state schools into the private schools, too. I should emphasise that I believe there are many fine schools and excellent teachers. But there are problems, nonetheless...

Unlike most nine-year-olds, my daughter Alex, is not back at school this week. She is not having last-minute morning rushes to find her self-losing shoes. She is not getting used to a new classroom or meeting a new form teacher. For during this term at least, I am going to home-educate her.

Alex has been at good private schools. Most recently she has been at a warmly encouraging one with an outstanding headmistress (who has been very good about what I am doing). Before that, she was at a school noted for its academic and sporting success.

But by the time you read this, Alex and I will be in a little cottage outside Aix-en-Provence, staying with an old friend who lives with her bee-keeper boyfriend. The first objective of our home-education will be for Alex to learn French.

Of course, in theory, she has already been learning French for five years and more. At the particularly academic school, she had, I think, three French lessons a week. But a few months ago I asked her - and her 12-year-old sister who is now at one of London's top private secondary schools - to decline the verbs etre and avoir. Neither of them got close. Even the best private schools - or most of them - don't seem to teach French grammar any more.

You might wonder what do they do in French classes? I am not sure but I remember the day my elder daughter's French homework at the 'academic' preparatory school consisted of finding pictures of tourist sites on the internet, drawing them and colouring them in. That reflects something about how French is taught these days - and many other subjects. Another great educational tool of our time seems to be papier mache.

I would like Alex to have some notion of English grammar, too. My children often say things like, "There is loads of..." and "I could of gone on the trip". They have little idea about nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. As for their spelling....

I don't want to give the impression that I will be a Gradgrind. We will have some fun, too. Alex loves to paint. We will go to the current major Cezanne exhibition in Aix and see his paintings of Mont St Victoire. Then we will see the mountain itself from the same viewpoint that he used. I hope we will settle down to paint it ourselves - perhaps copying Cezanne's technique.

One of the joys of home education is that one has the freedom to pursue things that already excite a child. Alex is fascinated by bugs. She likes shells and stones. I hope to use these interests to lead us into natural history.

While in Provence we will also go to Arles to see the amphitheatre and other Roman remains. We will learn some Roman history. History is still taught in schools and better, I think, than most subjects. But it has been squeezed into fewer lessons to make way for Information Technology, Design Technology and any other 'technology' that 'educationists' can think up.

I have the idea, which some may think eccentric, of giving Alex a big picture of the past, starting with the creation of the universe, going through the development of the surface of the earth and then on through the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans to the present. Perhaps that will prove overambitious. But having been repeatedly taught the 'Tudors 'n' Stuarts' through my childhood, I want her to get an idea of the big narrative sweep.

I think it is right that parents should be able to pursue particular ideas on what they want their children to learn about. Why should politicians and civil servants decide what is important and cause it to be learnt by every child in the country - in the process ensuring that many other things, such as a second modern language, are not taught?

Private schools are not - in theory - obliged to follow the national curriculum. But they live in terror of a bad report from school inspectors who follow government guidelines. One thing Alex wouldn't get in any London preparatory school I'm aware of is a knowledge of Italian. She is already getting towards the end of the time when she is most easily able to absorb a foreign language and I don't want to leave it any longer.

Home education is growing fast in Britain and has already become big business in America where two million children are now being educated at home. The reasons, as in my case, can be a mixture of things.

One of my minor reasons is that I want to remove her - for a time at least - from the undercurrent of propaganda in most schools today. Geography lessons have, to a remarkable extent, been turned into vehicles for passing on the views of Friends of the Earth. My children come home from school believing as uncontested facts that forests are being destroyed apace and that, if this does not stop, the planet is doomed. .

Much teaching about the environment is based on one side of the argument alone and I think that is the opposite of what education should be. Another kind of commonplace propaganda is a quiet but insistent sub-text in the teaching of many subjects that business and capitalism are bad. I would like her to hear the other side of that particular story.

More personally, I want Alex and I to have more contact while she is young. She is a lively, charming girl. I don't want to see her only in the evenings when she is tired and has homework to do. I want to know her better and for her to know me. I want to enjoy her sparkle and share the learning experience with her. I think that will be exciting.

The reactions of friends are usually positive and teachers, surprisingly, are often the most enthusiastic. But there is one recurring, negative response: "What about her socialisation?" Many worry that children cannot learn to rub along with others without going to school. Yet I am told, by those who have studied the evidence, that it is actually the other way around: those who are home-educated are better "socialised".

I have also noticed with my elder daughter that the longer term goes on, the more she says "whatever" and affects disinterest in pretty well everything (except horses). Only as the holidays progress does she rejoin the human race and allow herself to be enthusiastic. I have come to wonder whether schools have a tendency to put children off learning.

That could be arrogance before a fall. Alex may be going to resist learning even more when I am her main teacher. She may refuse to decline etre and not give tuppence for the universe. I can't know whether this is going to work. But I am going to have jolly good go at it.

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August 07, 2006
Why don't children study the universe, as George Washington did?

Over the holidays I have been reading Washington: the indispensable man.

I was interested to see that although not much is known about his education, one of the two subjects he is known to have learned about is astronomy. I occurs to me that one could make quite a good case for astronomy as one of the subjects that should be studied at primary schools. (I think it is sometimes included in science lessons but only to a minor extent.)

What could be more fundamental than to learn about the universe in which we live? For millenia, people have struggled to understand the nature of the world we inhabit and what is in - or beyond - the sky. Now, at last, we understand more about the extraordinary universe than ever before. We know we are a planet in a vast solar system which is, in turn, a small part of a much bigger galaxy which is one of many, many galaxies.

Yet while knowledge about this is far more extensive than it was in Washington's time, he learnt about it whereas children today do not.

The subjects that children are told to study at school have developed in a haphazard way. In the 19th century, religion was the main thing. Currently, the government decides the curriculum and thinks that the main purpose of education is to promote economic success - a rather grim idea

IT and CDT have become fashionable and now take up plenty of time in the curriculum. Languages take a back seat. And so on.

In addition to astronomy, there are cases to made for studying geology, industry and agriculture. I am sure other people could make cases for other subjects, too.

We should not allow ourselves to be trapped into a fixed idea of what children should study.

As I mentioned in the additional chapter in the paperback edition of the book, I was impressed by the way a secondary school in Miami was teaching aviation. The subject involved plenty of science and gets otherwise disenchanted boys interested.

(I will be away for a while, so please do not be offended if I do not get round to approving comments for a time.)

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June 25, 2006
The decline and dumping of 'A' levels

The number of schools offering the International Baccalaureate (IB)has jumped from 34 in 2000 to 85 this year. The organisation which runs it expects the number to increase to over 100 next year.

Of course, while A levels have deteriorated markedly, the IB is not ideal. Anthony Seldon will host a conference this week on alternatives to A level.

Further research by Robert Coe of Durham University provides further evidence of the dumbing down of A levels.According to his work, an average candidate who got a who got an F in A-level maths in 1988 would have got a C in 2005.

The above, with more detail, is in an article in the Sunday Telegraph today.

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June 16, 2006
Are grammar schools the answer?

Stephen Pollard, a talented and likeable journalist, wrote an article for the Daily Mail today which, like my own article below, dealt with the disproportionate success of children who go to private schools. He looked back with nostalgia to the existence of far more grammar schools.

It is true that grammar schools used to give people from less well-off families a better chance of success. But I disagree with the idea that bringing back grammar schools is the great solution to our problems. My main reason for dissenting so is that it would still leave us with a large body of schools providing wholly inadequate education for most of the less well-off.

A secondary reason is that I believe the standard even of most grammar schools has declined. For my reasoning on this, please see the education chapter of the book.

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Time to realise the state is useless at running schools

The unedited version of my article in today's Daily Express:

Sometimes terrible truths come out just 'by the way'. Alan Johnson, the education secretary, made a speech on Wednesday about the challenges facing Britain and how he was going to make our schools 'even better'. But a long way down his speech, just incidentally, he mentioned some appalling facts.

"Despite all our progress," he said, "five million adults in Britain cannot read". And, as if this were not sufficiently bad, he added "and 15 million people, almost half the workforce, are not properly numerate".

These are staggering statistics. The state has provided free primary education for nearly 90 years. Yet five millions adults in this country cannot read this newspaper because they are incapable of doing so. They are living in a world that those of us who are able to read can only imagine. They have difficulty filling in forms or understanding such things as advertisments for pop concerts. The twilight world in which they live represents a shocking failure.

To ram the point home, it also emerged this week that 54 per cent of top news journalists in this country went to private schools, a very large proportion considering that more than nine out of ten children attend state schools. The Sutton Trust, which researched the figure, previously discovered that, similarly, 70 per cent of top barristers went to private schools and 42 per cent of those at the top of politics.

Everyone knows Tony Blair went to Fettes College, a private school in Scotland and David Cameron went to Eton. But there are plenty more. In journalism, for example, Jeremy Paxman went to Malvern College and Katie Derham to Cheadle Hulme School - both private schools. Yes, it is true that the BBC's inquisitor, John Humphrys, went to Cardiff High, a state school. and both Gordon Brown and William Hague also went to state schools. But state-school children who have reached the top have beaten the odds. You could even say that, though their success, they have shown that they (or their parents) have been exceptionally clever and determined.

I am a governor of a state primary school and I know how dedicated and talented many of the teachers there are. But state schools were created partly to equalise the life-chances of the rich and poor. We need to face up to the fact that this isn't working. State schools might actually be reducing the chances of the least well off. The proportion of privately educated children getting to the top seems to be rising. An earlier study showed that a bright girl born into a low-income household in 1958 had a four in ten chance of getting a university degee. Twelve years on, a similar girl had only a three in ten chance of getting that far.

Prior to the creation of widespread government education, there were a surprising number of people who rose from the working class to the top. Nye Bevan, the minister who created the NHS, was a miner's son who left school at 11. But there was no question of him not being able to read or write. David Lloyd George, one of Britain's most famous prime ministers, was brought up by his uncle, a cobbler, and educated at an independent church school in a remote part of Wales. When he left school at 14, he was better educated than many a graduate of today.

Sadly, the way our state system works, the poor tend to end up in the worst schools. The upper middle classes - people like Tony Blair - get their children into the best ones. So the least well-off start with disadvantages and then often go to schools which give them virtually no chance of breaking out.

But why? Why have state schools failed to do what was intended and hoped for?

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June 15, 2006
After nearly 90 years of compulsory primary education offered free by the state....

Despite all our progress, 5 million adults in Britain can not read and 15 million people, almost half the workforce, are not properly numerate.

In the workplace, basic skills are a pretty fundamental requirement for success, as the IoD has argued; whilst, nationally, poor basic skills costs us £10 billion a year in lost productivity and welfare benefits.

From a speech by Alan Johnson, Education Secretary, yesterday

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June 08, 2006
Wasting money in state education

From John Clare's column in the Daily Telegraph yesterday:

My son, who has just turned 16, is being urged by his school to sign up for a "Connexions Card". What's it all about?

Another Government black hole. More than a million cards have been issued over the past five years supposedly to encourage youngsters aged 16 to 19 to "keep learning". Holders collect "reward points" for turning up at school or college and then "spend" them on CDs, DVDs, mobile phone accessories or whatever the scheme's commercial sponsors are peddling.

As harmless - and pointless - as a supermarket "loyalty card", you might think. But so far, issuing the cards - which contain a chip storing the holder's personal details - has cost taxpayers £72 million, of which £66 million has gone to Capita, the Government's favourite private-sector dog'sbody.

What proof is there of any educational benefit? "There is no evidence that the originally intended impact on increasing post-16 participation in further education and training is yet being achieved" - Beverley Hughes, a junior minister in the Department for Education (with commendable honesty). Capita, however, has been told to carry on churning out the cards, for which it will be paid another £40 million between now and December 2008. Isn't it fun wasting other people's money?

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education • Waste in public services

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GCSEs are dumbed-down exams - further evidence
So how do O-level and GCSE exams compare? In history, the difference is stark. O-level requires candidates to know and understand rather a lot. GCSE requires them to know and understand rather little. This is obvious from a study of the exam papers.

Take, for example, questions about the League of Nations and the Treaty of Versailles from last year's GCSE history paper set by the AQA board and compare it with O-level questions covering the same period from the Cambridge board's specimen paper.

The first question for GCSE candidates was: "What does Source A tell us about the main aims of the League of Nations?" "Source A", printed immediately above the question, said: "The League of Nations aimed to keep peace through collective security and to encourage disarmament." So it is no more than a simple test of comprehension.

By contrast, the first question for O-level candidates is: "Show how the peace settlement of 1919-20 changed the European boundaries and reduced the power of (a) Germany and (b) Austria. To what extent were German-speaking people disadvantaged by the peace settlement?"

The above is from an article by Chris McGovern, a history teacher, in yesterday's Telegraph.

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May 26, 2006
The standard of Latin in schools has 'plummeted'

The standard of Latin required for getting a GCSE has 'plummeted', according to the author of modern textbooks in both Latin and Greek. John Taylor, head of classics at Tonbridge School, says the unseen translations that used to be required at 'O' level in the 1950s and 1960s would now be considered 'A' level standard.

One other little piece of information: only one in 800 children now takes Greek at GCSE.

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May 14, 2006
Schools as academies of crime

The revised and updated paperback edition of The Welfare State We're In is published tomorrow. As part of the publicity for the launch, I have written an article that appears in the Sunday Telegraph today. Here is an extract:

According to research published last week, Britons have the worst reputation for yobbish behaviour in Europe.

Three-quarters of Europeans think Britain has a problem with anti-social behaviour - a higher figure than for any other country on the Continent, the study, devised with help from the Jill Dando Institute, discovered.

It blamed drunkenness and a breakdown in discipline in homes and schools.

The Victorians would have been appalled and astonished. A principal finding of this report would have been quite contrary to one of their strongest beliefs: the idea that schools have contributed to the "loutification" of Britain.

Victorians thought that education was crucial in the fight against crime.

When I first came across the assertion that compulsory state schooling had contributed to the amount of crime in British society I found it an extraordinary idea. We are so accustomed to thinking that schools are good, admirable institutions that it is strange to think that they might be doing harm in any way at all. But the more one considers the evidence, the more credible this surprising thought becomes.

The full article is here.

There is more on the subject in the chapter on education in The Welfare State We're In.

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May 08, 2006
Failing state education on a spectacular scale

Gordon Brown would like to send taxpayers' money to provide more education in Africa, by which he means more state education. There are far better ways of helping Africa. Below is part of an article in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph. It graphically describes how money put into state education in Pakistan has been wasted on an astonishing scale.

Of course Africa is not Pakistan. But it is hardly renowned as a place where government corruption is unknown. And James Tooley's Newsnight report from Africa last year indicated that, on the contrary, money spent on state education in certain countries there was by no means well spent.

If poor people in Britain were taxed in order to hand over their money to African government to waste in anything like the way described below, it would be appalling.

Millions of children in Pakistan are denied even a basic education because of wide-scale corruption and inefficiency in the state system, an independent watchdog has revealed.

At one school, the playground is so full of rubbish dumped by neighbours that the stench is too foul for children to play, in another, the classrooms are used to store grain and at a third, 49 teachers draw salaries even though there are no pupils.

Yet a report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan claims that such cases are far from unusual, and that state education is so crippled by graft and its accounts so poorly monitored, that millions of pupils are receiving no meaningful education. About 40,000 "ghost schools" stand empty or are used for other purposes.

Of the often-squalid, crowded schools where teachers and pupils do actually meet, more than 60,000 (39 per cent) have no drinking water, 96,000 (62 per cent) have no electricity and 76,000 (49 per cent) have no lavatories, the report, published last month, reveals.

At Karachi's Haqqani Chowk School, 49 teachers are on the payroll, costing the school £7,170 a month, but no pupils are registered. At another primary school in the city, 40 teachers have been appointed to teach only 11 enrolled children.

"Most of the teachers in public-sector schools have secured postings to institutions where they need not attend every day, and at least 50 per cent of the teaching staff in public-sector schools are 'ghost teachers'," said Abdul Wahab Abbassi, a senior education official.

The absentee teachers handed between 30 and 40 per cent of their salaries to district education supervisors to ensure that they kept their "jobs", Mr Abbassi added.

In Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital, 3,228 school buildings are used as autaqs - gathering places for men - or for grain storage, and their playgrounds as livestock pens.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education • Foreign aid • Waste in public services

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March 28, 2006
The Tories do not really intend to make all state schools into private schools

I was at a supper this evening at which it was suggested to a senior member of the shadow cabinet that all state schools should be made into private schools. The senior Tory agreed and said that that was the current policy. But this assertion was really an exaggeration, as became clear.

The current policy, it seems, is that state schools should be made into independent trusts. That is not the same as privatisation. A privatised company can be taken over. It can go bust and nobody except the shareholders will care too much. It can, if it is successful, take over other private companies or develop new ones. These are all things that would help to lead quickly to better schools. These are things that would happen if all state schools were sold to companies and/or charities and/or trade unions. But the Tory plan, it seems, is that they should all be made into these independent trusts - a very different matter.

This would mean, in the overwhelming majority of cases, that the same heads would remain in position who would probably continue with the same teachers to administer the schools in pretty much the same way as before.

The senior Tory said that parents would choose some schools over others, so the bad ones would die out. But because they would be independent trusts and because they presumably would not be able to be taken over by companies, they would die long drawn-out deaths that will cause outcries among parents and in the media. They would survive from year to year with their dwindling student numbers by selling off bits of land here and there. The complaints about this would put enormous pressure on the government of the day to send in 'experts' to try to rescue the failing schools.

It would be far better if failing schools could simply be taken over by companies and new heads put in place with a new approaches and perhaps the benefit of new investment. The possibility and actuality of takeovers would lead to quick improvements and vitality. The trust model is doomed to be slow and to run into terrific political problems. It would be far better if Tory policy were to put through the wholesale and genuine privatisation of all state schools.

Incidentally, I am far from sure, even now, that I really know what the Tory policy on this is. In a recent speech, David Willetts (not the man at supper tonight) seemed to imply that not all state schools would become trusts anyway.

Here is the recent speech on education by David Willetts. It does not address the issues abpve but has, as you would expect with Willetts, has plenty of evidence and intelligence in it. The evidence is about the benefit of choice. What he needs to look at next is the benefit of private ownership compared to trust status.

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March 16, 2006
The rate of dropping out appears to be increasing.

"Nationally, of 313,375 students who began degree courses in 2002 and should have graduated last summer, 22.6% - 71,000 - failed to do so, as did 22.1% the previous year. Although some of these undergraduates moved to other universities or switched courses, 14.4% dropped out completely.

"And research has found that those who leave university early are much more likely to suffer from problems such as depression, low-self-esteem and unemployment later in life.

"The ones most likely to fall in this trap? White males from traditionally working-class backgrounds. Precisely the people, in fact, who Tony Blair insisted would be helped by his plan to open up the universities to allcomers."

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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January 26, 2006
Social segregation in state schools

"One of the study's key findings is that social segregation in England is not driven by the existence of private schools. About 80 per cent of segregation is accounted for by the uneven spread of children from different social backgrounds within the state school sector."

This is from Social Segregation in secondary schools: how does England compare with other countries? by Stephen Jenkins (University of Essex) and others. It is Working Paper 2006-02 published by the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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January 23, 2006
Somehow it is never pay or pensions that get cut for government employees

Not long ago, someone commented on this site that whenever all or part of the NHS runs out of money, wards are closed or operations are delayed or some other cost-saving measure is taken. But never are salaries cut back.

The fact illustrates the way in which government-provided services, as opposed to commercial or charitable ones, have a particularly strong tendency to look after their staff first, rather than the customers (or patients or students) who receive the service. Of course it does not feel like that to the doctors, nurses, administrators, teachers and so on. It feels to them like they are badly paid and enduring difficult and frustrating conditions. This is often true, too. But the fact remains that their pay and pensions are kept sacrosanct that would not apply if they were in the commercial or charitable world.

Further evidence of this came at the weekend in this story:

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education • NHS • Pensions • Waste in public services

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January 20, 2006
Sweden and America tell us that choice matters

People have the wrong idea about choice. They think "Why do we want choice? We just want good schools." The point about choice is that this is a way to get those good schools. Choice is one side of a coin. On the other side is competition.

This is from an excellent article by David Green in the Telegraph today.

Sweden is the only European country operating a universal voucher scheme. The reforms began in 1992 when independent schools were guaranteed the right to receive funding from municipalities. Vouchers are now valued at 100 per cent of the average cost of a place in a local state school. Any type of school that meets the requirements of the National Agency for Education is entitled to this funding, whether religious, for-profit or charitable. Schools are prohibited from charging top-up fees and are not allowed to select pupils by ability. They must also meet specific academic standards and adhere to the national curriculum.

The voucher system has resulted in an increase in independent providers. Before the reforms, independent schools in Sweden accounted for less than one per cent of pupils and few of those received any government funding. According to the Swedish National Agency for Education, there were 565 independent schools in 2004/05, accounting for 11 per cent of the 4,963 schools overall. An independent study found that competition from independent schools has improved results in state schools. Moreover, it has been found that new independent schools are more likely to be established in areas of under-performing state schools serving disadvantaged children.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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January 19, 2006
An unusual univerity

I am told that there is a remarkable private university in Guatemala. It is much bigger than Britain's only private university, Buckingham, although the population of Guatemala is much smaller.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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Perhaps 'City Academies' are not the answer

"The Government's much vaunted city academies are among the nation's worst schools.

Half of the privately-sponsored schools have less than 30 per cent of students achieving five good grades at GCSE."

This from the Daily Mail today. Note that though these schools have some private sponsorship, they are still very much under the control of the government.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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The league tables are becoming useless

If the league tables don't show that state schools are improving, then fix them. Fix the tables, that is. You make easier to get GCSEs count the same as ones in the more difficult - but absolutely fundamental subjects - like maths, English and science. You also pretend vocational qualifications that are less academically demanding are equivalent to GCSEs, or even worth more.

The league tables are now becoming useless as a means of genuinely telling if one school has a better academic performance than another. The farce is neatly revealed in this account of what went on beneath the surface in the 'most improved' school:

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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January 13, 2006
Grammar schools are not the answer

The following, by Huw Jenkins, was one of a series of comments about a recent post on education. I have pasted it here because it is very close to my own view. Again and again, those on the Right talk about grammar schools as if they were the holy grail and would solve all educational problems. But, as Huw says,...

"The problem I have with the grammar (selective) school that, just like comprehensives, they would be part of a state-organised system imposed on everyone from above.

"Libertarians should be against any centrally-imposed system. Providers should have to cater for the market in the way they see best and be answerable to their 'customers'. I don't begrudge John East the choice of a selective school, but not if this removes the choice of a non-selective school for other people. It would also be interesting to know whether those that advocate imposing a selective system would be quite so keen if they thought their child wouldn't 'pass' the selection process.

"When I was choosing a secondary school for my daughter, I had no choice in the state sector - just the local comp (generally considered quite good as I'm in one of the top 10 LEAs judged by GCSE results) as most state schools in the area are over-subscribed. However, in the independent sector, we visited many choices and whittled it down to two. One was selective and the other not. We would have been equally happy with either - we chose the selective one because my income went down and it was cheaper. One of my daughter's friends (equally academic) chose the non-selective school partly because she could go to the same school as her less academic siblings. In fact, children from my daughter's prep school (some very unacademic) have gone to all sorts of independent secondary schools - and everyone seems to have found one that suits them.

"So the independent sector, in which there is no 'system', just alternative suppliers that have to cater for market demand, offered a more satisfacory choice. The question should be how we can make this choice available for everyone."

I would only add that we alreay have sink comprehensives in which the children of the poor end up and get a parody of a proper education. Having more grammar schools would do nothing to put that terrible situation right.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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January 11, 2006
'The new GCSEs are to real science what baby food is to steak and chips.'
There is a moment in the Dambusters film when the bomb goes off. We stare at the blank, unmarked face of the dam. All looks peace and calm. Then a crack opens in the façade, then a rift and suddenly the whole thing comes crumbling down.

The impending introduction of new science GCSEs is just such a bomb, which is why St Paul's is getting out from under the dam and opting for the high ground represented by the International GCSE (IGCSE) in the sciences.

That is the beginning of an article by the head of St Paul's (the boys school, not the one for girls. The full article is here.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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An education organisation that leaves schools without head teachers is incompetent

This is the unquestionably significant part of the story in the National Audit Office's report (the Daily Telegraph version of the story is here):

It found that 28 per cent of primary schools and 20 per cent of secondaries lacked a permanent head teacher last year.

"The situation is likely to get worse as more heads retire next year," said Angela Hands, the NAO's director of education reports. "Younger teachers are not keen to follow the role of headship in their careers."

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January 10, 2006
Education policy: Labour/Conservative...what's the difference?

Article of the day: John Clare's dissection of David Cameron's new education policy....

An education policy designed to offend no one was what David Cameron, the Tory leader, announced yesterday.

Out go the two great totems of the last two elections, "a grammar school in every town" and, most recently, "the right to choose" backed by an education voucher that parents could spend where they pleased.

Instead, the Tories will now echo Labour's education policy in every important respect - on trust schools (whatever they are), on city academies, on urging heads to group more pupils by ability, on leaving schools to decide whether to select up to 10 per cent of their intake, and on charging university students top-up fees.

David Cameron seems to be moving so far towards New Labour that it is increasingly difficult to see what is the point of the Conservative Party under his leadership?

There is room for real anger here. I had lunch yesterday with a New Zealander who told me he survived what we would call a 'bog-standard' comprehensive school in his home country. He said it made him furious that people like Cameron, who had been to private schools, should say that comprehensive schools are fine and continue to condemn hundreds of thousands of children to schools which, on average, provide education and circumstances that are so inferior to what they could experience without the damaging state monopoly.

David Cameron is busy 'positioning himself' for power. Meanwhile children of poor families are having their chances in life undermined. My New Zealand friend said he was so 'arrogant'. You could also say it was self-seeking and unprincipled.

I suppose there are a few aspects of the free-market and low-tax ideas of Thatcherism which have survived the Cameron purge. He supports top-up fees for students. And, little noticed among all the emphasis on supporting the NHS, he has said he wants to increase the proportion of private operations performed within the NHS. But these are only a few comforts among the many disappointments.

Who will Thatcherites and free-marketeers vote for in the next election. Will they come to think tht Cameron is so Left-wing that there is no advantage in voting for him? Will the population continue to find all this attractive? If so, I fear it says something very worrying about the British people.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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November 28, 2005
Not a single decent GCSE

Updating statistics from the book, I have found that it remains the case that nearly one in four children in their final year of compulsory schooling fails to get a single GCSE at a grade A to C. The latest exact figure is 23.2%. It is terrible reflection of the poor quality of state education. Indeed, if you took out the results of private schools, the figure would be certainly be higher.

(The figures, from the 2005 'Education and Training Statistics' publication on the Department for Education and Skills website, are for 2003/04.)

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November 26, 2005
Virtually all bright children at private schools get good GCSE results but only just half of bright children at state schools do.

One of the continuing myths among the richer members of the middle class is that they will put their children at no disadvantage by sending them to British state schools. I gave some evidence for this in The Welfare State We're In, but now along comes more.

This is from the front page splash in yesterday's Times reporting a study by Professor David Jesson of York University:

In fact, of the 37,500 children in the top 5 per cent [the brightest children when tested at 11], 30,000 went on to state secondaries and 7,500 were educated privately. By the age 16, all 7,500 in fee-paying schools had achieved at least five GCSE grades A* or A. But only 20,000 of the original cohort in state schools reached this standard.

The professor said that 13,000 students in state schools achieved three A grades at A level. In independent schools, the number was 7,600.

“At age 11, 7 per cent of all pupils are in independent schools. By age 16, 25 per cent of those achieving five A* or A grades are in independent schools. At 18, 33 per cent of those with three As at A level are in independent schools, and 44 per cent of Oxbridge entrants,” Professor Jesson said.

“There is the evidence not merely of a state-independent school divide, but of a state-independent divide on pupils who are similar. This is evidence of a severe talent drain.”

Oxbridge admitted 3,500 candidates from the state sector in 2004 and 2,600 from independent schools. Bright children in independent schools therefore had a 1-in-3 chance of getting into Oxbridge compared with a less than 1-in-8 chance for students in the state sector.

Let us look at these figures another way: the chances of a bright child at a private school going on to get five GCSEs with an A or A* grade are virtually 100%. But for a similarly bright child at a state school, the chances are only 53%. That is a huge difference.

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November 18, 2005
All must have prizes

I have been revisiting some of the statistics quoted in 'The Welfare State We're In' to see how the picture has developed since the book went to print.

One of them was on the subject of degrees awarded by Oxford University. As with quite a lot of other statistics, updates make the points made in the book look all the stronger.

In 1955, for every three third class degrees awarded by Oxford University, there was only a single first. Fast forward fifty years and in 2005, for every three thirds there were nine firsts.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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November 14, 2005
The school bullying 'epidemic'
Almost every child is affected by bullying and is growing up in a society that sees violence as "the norm", the children's commissioner has said. Professor Al Aynsley-Green argued that, despite good work in schools, there is still denial about the "existence, severity and effect" of bullying.

He told the Observer that violence had become the norm in the workplace, on television and in the home.

This is from BBC online this morning.

Further on:

Professor Aynsley-Green's comments came just days after 15-year-old Natashia Jackman was stabbed in the head while at school in Camberley, Surrey.

And on Wednesday, 19-year-old Tommy Kimpton, of Penryn, Cornwall, was sentenced to two years in prison for killing a friend who had bullied him.

All this is likely to get worse, not better. The social problems which give rise to it, including unmarried parenting, mass unemployment, benefit dependency, compulsory attendance to the age of 16 of children who are not successfully taught even how to read and write, are all still in place and in some cases even more serious than 15 years ago.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Behaviour & Crime • Education

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November 07, 2005
How the state wastes teachers' time and taxpayers' money.

It is often quite difficult to get at the convincing detail of how the state is a bad provider of services such as schooling and healthcare. Most people simply do not see the waste, inefficiency and organised morale-sapping in action and so do not believe they all exist. Here, though, is one example culled from the excellent 'Any questions?" column by John Clare in Saturday's Daily Telegraph.

The question asked is:

What is the "endless paperwork" teachers are always complaining about?

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education • Waste in public services

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November 01, 2005
Mr Osborne thinks he can make state schools the best

From George Osborne's speech at the Conservative Party conference last month:

"...competing in an age when our skills are at a premium...means building the best state education system in the world. A system so good that parents want to opt in - not opt out." (His emphasis.)

"Why shouldn't the best schools in the country be State schools? Open to all, on merit alone, regardless of background and income".

It is astonishing and distressing

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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October 30, 2005
Dickens - an unreliable source for many people's idea of the 19th century

Education without the state has a bad image. It is provided above all, as so often with bad images of the 19th century, by Charles Dickens. In Nicholas Nickleby he turns his attention to schooling and claims that he is describing the sort of conditions that actually existed in a part of Yorkshire.

The young man Nicholas Nickleby becomes an assistant teacher and is appalled by what he finds in Dotheboys Hall. As he looked as the children who he is meant to teach,

How the last traces of hope, the remotest glimmering any good to be derived from his efforts in this den faded from the mind of Nicholas as he looked in dismay around! Pale and haggard faces, lank and bony figures, children with the countenances of old men, deformities with irons upon their limbs, boys of stunted growth, and others whose long meagre legs would hardly bear their stooping bodies, all crowded on the view together; there were the bleared eye, the har -lip, the corked foot and every ugliness or distortion that told of unnatural aversion conceived by parents for their offspring, or of young lives, which, from the earliest dawn of infancy had been on horrible endurance of cruelty and neglect...
and so on for some time. Continuing later,
...What an incipient Hell was breeding here!

It is indeed a Hell that Dickens goes on to describe - of cruelty and greed perpetrated by this school and the apparently ‘unnatural’ parents.

In Oliver Twist, of course, the hero is born in a poor house and treated with utter cruelty.

Then there is the ghastly teacher Gradgrind in Hard Times.

Dickens is the most read author of the 19th century. I love his works, especially A Christmas Carol.

But taking Dickens as a reliable source for understanding conditons in the 19th century - as many people do, who know no better - is as absurd as taking Harry Potter as an accurate guide to contemporary schools in Britain.

First, let us not forget the simple fact that Dickens was writing fiction. Second, in the case of Nicholas Nickleby, people in Yorkshire were so outraged by his calumny against the county that in the second preface, Dickens withdrew and said that he understood that such places no longer existed. It is pretty clear that no such place ever existed at all. Thirdly, Dickens was always writing about England at an earlier time in the 19th century. As we shall see, education changed drastically in that amazing century. To talk about education in, say, 1810 is utterly different to talking about it in 1880. They are like two different countries.

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October 03, 2005
Is it now better to go to an American university?

I recently spoke to the head of a large private school in London who believes that university education in Britain has noticeably declined in quality compared to what it used to be.

We discussed whether it might be better, now, to go to an American university instead. More and more parents with children in private education are looking to America which certainly has far more universities that are rated among the best in the world.

There are doubts and concerns about the different teaching methods. The tutorial system, for example, has always been regarded as a particular strength of Oxford and Cambridge in particular. How does America compare in this regard?

The Daily Telegraph today has some articles on American universities. One is by a young man currently at one of them. This is part of what he wrote:

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September 29, 2005
History as pro-statist propaganda

I have just returned from giving a talk to sixth-formers and teachers at St Paul's School (the elite boys private school in London).

I gave them part of the quiz which appears at the beginning of the book, inviting them to call out what they thought might be the answers, even if they were only guesses.

1. In the mid-nineteenth century, before state schooling, what percentage of children had five to seven years schooling?

There were calls of 5% and 10%.

2. Now, 150 years later and 86 years after free elementary education was made available to all by state statute, what is - according to the government - the rate of 'functional illiteracy'?

They called out 5%, 1% and 2%.

3. Out of seven million working men in industry in 1892, how many were members of a friendly society?

A teacher said, 'Perhaps you should tell them what a friendly society was.' One of the students called out 'a few hundred thousand'.

4. In 1950, after Beveridge, Attlee and so on, what was the proportion of people on means-tested welfare benefits?

There were calls of 5%, 10% and 20%.

5. In 2,000, after growth in GDP per capita of 165% and the benefit of the governments of Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and Gordon Brown, what percentage is now on such benefits?

One person suggested 40%.

6. When was St Bartholomew's Hospital founded and who by?

One person guessed 1890 and another 1940. No one offered a suggestion as to who founded it.

7. Which of London's leading teaching hospitals was founded by the NHS?

One boy offered "UCH".

Given that these are sixth formers mostly studying politics, economics and/or history at oneof the best private schools in Britain, I thought these were remarkable answers.

They showed ignorance of important aspects of the truth of the situation in the nineteenth century up the present in welfare matters. More worrying than that, their guesses showed that they thought far worse of the 19th century than was true and generally far better of the current situation than is true.

These are their answers compared with the truth: According to a government survey 95% of children in 1860 had between five and seven years education - not five to ten per cent as they guessed. The rate of functional illiteracy now is far worse at 20% now, not 1% to 5% as they guessed. Six million out of the seven million men working in industry were members of friendly societies in 1892, not a mere 'few hundred thousand'. No one can really understand late 19th century Britain without knowing something of the friendly societies.

They all over-estimated the number of people on benefits after the Beveridge, Attlee and so on. There were only 3.4% whereas they thought 5% to 20%. They had no idea how independent people still were at that time when Britain was very much poorer than today.

They nearly always underestimated the independence of individuals and welfare provision that existed before the modern welfare state. They nearly always overestimated the achievement of the modern welfare state. The only exception was when one of them guessed that 40 per cent of people are now welfare dependants. I suspect he might have seen a figure which included those people on the basic state pension.

They had no idea that St Bart's was founded in the 12th century and one of them, at least, thought that University College Hospital was founded by the NHS (whereas in fact it is the result of amalgamating various hospitals which pre-dated the the NHS). In fact not a single leading London teaching hospital was founded by the NHS.

The students generally had the wrong idea for a reason which soon became evident.

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September 27, 2005
A quarter of students drop out.
Nearly a quarter of first-year students - more than 71,000 - will fail to graduate from the university or college at which they enrolled, the Higher Education Funding Council said yesterday.

Even 15 years later, most of the drop-outs will still not have achieved any higher education qualifications.

The figures, based on official projections of universities' performance, implied a waste of about £500 million a year and called into question the Government's policy of urging even more young people to enter higher education.

Not included in the statistics are the thousands of students who enrol in haste during clearing but decide that university is not for them and pull out before Dec 1.

More on this Daily Telegraph story here.

The short story is this: state further and higher education has been obliged to take ever bigger numbers. The quantity of tutors has not been similarly increased. So the amount of personal interaction between students and tutors has decline drastically. The courses are therefore less satisfying and intellectually stimulating. The quality of students taken on is, necessarily, on average of a lower academic standard than before. Meanwhile many of the practical courses are pseudo-academic (in a way that must be boring and frustrating) and not truly practical. So they lead nowhere. With all these factors combining together, it is no surprise that the drop-out rate is now so high. Nor is it a surprise that the most low-grade 'universities' giving the most Mickey Mouse courses have the highest number of drop-outs. In some cases, it is verging on one in two of the student intake.

(Also in the same edition of the Telegraph was this article claiming that most students are satisfied with their courses, a rather surprising claim given that so many leave. There is also this leader.)

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September 08, 2005
Has state education peaked?

Are we seeing the beginning of the decline of state education in Britain? It might sound extraordinary - especially as we have a Labour Party in power. But the evidence is piling up.

Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, told local government leaders this week that she intends to bring in charities, parent groups, religious groups and 'mutual organisations' to run some schools. Local councils, she announced, "don't add value through micro-managing heads". Councils, she suggested, could be reduced merely to "commissioning" schools instead of running them.

This is a radical - perhaps we should say a 'desperate' - new idea. On its past record, one must doubt how much will come of it. But this is the second time the government' has shown a willingness to break up the state monolith. It aims to create 200 City Academies by 2010. These schools are supported by money from business and are meant to enjoy a little more independence than normal state schools. Frankly they have disappointed so far, probably because the independence they have been given has not liberated them sufficiently. But these two policies show that even a Labour government is willing to shift the balance of British education.

Despite its regular claims that schooling in Britain is getting better every year, the Government knows in its heart that our wholly state-financed, state-run education is in serious trouble.

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August 25, 2005
How much personal tuition does an undergraduate get?

How much time does a modern undergraduate get talking to a tutor?

I talked to a London University student today. He has two parts to his course. I cannot describe what they are because that would identify him and could get him into trouble. I will call them subjects A and B.

In subject A, he has no personal contact with a tutor at all. He writes essays and gets them back, marked, in his pigeon hole. He does have some contact with his 'personal tutor' in the subject. His personal tutor is supposed to see him once a term. He has been seen for ten minutes on these occasions.

Subject B is a bit better. He can have contact with a tutor if he collects his essays. That contact lasts about 10 minutes and this takes place up to four times a term. His personal tutor in this subject never sees him at all.

There is no teaching at all in the summer term, although there is some revision contact in subject B. Teaching only takes place in the other two terms.

He is approaching his third year and has embarked on his dissertation. He has contact with a dissertation supervisor. This takes place five times a term and last about 15 to 20 minutes. But rememember that this dissertation contact take place in only two and a half terms out of his nine terms at university.

His regular contact with a tutor in each term has amounted to:

Personal tutor in subject A: 10 minutes
Subject tutor in subject B: 4 x 10 minutes

Total = 50 minutes a term.

When I was an undergraduate at Oxford, I had mmore than that each week of the term.

Fifty minutes a term is not real teaching. As one tutor remarked to him. "We are not judged on our teaching. We are judged on our research papers." That is a part of why the teaching is so niggardly. But perhaps more important, tutors no longer have the time for personal contact. There are oo many students and too few tutors.

It is hard to explain to someone who has never experienced tutorials (with three or four students) just what a difference they make. If you come forward with arguments and they are questioned and taken apart by a seriously clever academic, it is a mind-developing experience.

If you just go to lectures and read books, it is not the same at all. But that is what modern British universities - even 'top' ones like London - now offer. It is sad. Is there anywhere in the world that still offers a proper university education?

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July 14, 2005
The astonishing growth of Islamic, Evangelical and other faith-based, fee-paying schools for people who are not rich at all.

There is a primary school in Bethnal Green that normally gets excellent results. But suddenly its performance slumped last year. I rang the deputy head and asked what had happened. She told me that seven or eight children in the fifth form had left to go to a new Islamic school nearby. Their replacements were not as advanced in their reading.

Later the same day I went to a school governor's meeting the other side of London. I mentioned this little exodus. "Oh yes," came the weary seen-that-before response. "We lost three children out of reception this year. They went to an Islamic school, too."

There is something important going on here and there is going to be a dog-fight about what it means.

These schools are growing seriously fast.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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July 12, 2005
Places at good state school available. Only the middle classes need apply.

There is a slightly strange article in the Telegraph today about what is said to be a good state school in Brixton. It is curious because the author sends her child to this school yet, ostensibly, the article is critical of the parents of children there. Although the school is in Brixton, the parents are generally middle class and in some cases quite able to afford private education. These parents apparently flatter themselves that they are being virtuous in sending their children to state schools. They believe in state schools because they, they think, they give opportunities to poorer parents. Yet in fact, poorer parents generally cannot manage to get their children into good state schools such as this one. The implication is that these parents are not really being virtuous at all. Yet the author herself is sending her child there. I find it confusing that she is implicitly criticising parents of children at the school when she herself is one of them. Perhaps all would have become clear if she had had more space in which to explain.

In any case, she describes a classic instance of something that I made much of in The Welfare State We're In: that the poor get the worst of the services - particularly the education - provided by the state.

Our local state primary school happens to be one of the best in the country, consistently praised by school inspectors, and it was one of the first schools to be awarded ''beacon'' status.

Sudbourne Primary is a lovely school where children are encouraged to express themselves and be confident, yet have consideration for others. The school's website boasts proudly that it was where Tony and Cherie made their first official visit, the morning after the 1997 election, and you can see how the school has become a Blairite mascot. Despite its location, everyone's middle class there (well, nearly).

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July 04, 2005
Schools: disorder and tricking the OFSTED inspectors

Below is part of a Sunday Telegraph report by a woman who was a supply teacher for six months and visited 16 schools in that time. She was reporting for Channel 4 Dispatches and the programme will be shown on Thursday at 9pm. It should be worth watching.

What struck me very early on was that poor, even outrageous indiscipline - children leaping across tables or wandering around brandishing fire extinguishers - had become acceptable. At one school, I was calmly advised by a female colleague to lock the classroom door while I was teaching, to "protect" myself and my class from the marauding groups in the corridors. The look of surprise on my face did not seem to register with her.

Time and again I would be surprised, and shocked, and eventually deeply saddened by what I saw in the state school system. A combination of classroom disorder, endless supply teachers, conscientious but jaded staff and school managers who seemed prepared to pretend that all was well had created a situation that was a million miles away from the Government rhetoric of rising standards.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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July 02, 2005
Private education in a remote part of Africa better than a comprehensive in Britain

This letter in the Daily Telegraph today provides good anecdotal support:

Sir - How to rescue Africa from Mr Blair's and Mr Brown's good intentions? James Bartholomew (Opinion, June 30) [this posting] cited Professor James Tooley's research to indicate how spending $7 billion a year of someone's money to give every African child free state education would shatter the standards of education already in place.

I can cite my own experience of simultaneously serving as a governor of a large comprehensive in Mr Blair's native ground of Islington while repeatedly visiting the remote Bakonzo people of the Ruwenzoru mountains in Uganda's far west. There, where virtually every child goes to one mission-founded school or another, paying tiny fees, the standards of literacy, grammar, maths, handwriting, general knowledge and, of course, scriptural history, were (and are) markedly higher than at the struggling Islington comprehensive, age for age, right through from 12 to 16.

Tom Stacey, London W8

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education • Foreign aid

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June 29, 2005
Newsnight: Tooley in Africa

While there is time, I recommend you have a look at the part of Newsnight last night about private education in a slum in Africa, presented by Professor James Tooley. The programme is here. The section concerned starts after 32 minutes - you can fast forward to it. I think this Newsnight will no longer be viewable after the next one appears tonight.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education • Foreign aid

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June 28, 2005
The number of qualified maths teachers has slumped from 46,500 to 30,800

This looks like a key report on the deterioration of maths teaching in Britain. It ties in the experience of parents even at private schools where they find that their children are doing what might be regarded as trivial, meaningless puzzles instead of learning 'real maths'. At the age of eleven, such puzzles are being done whereas, forty years ago, such children would be learning algebra.

Teaching of maths in spiral of decline, say dons By John Clare, Education Editor (Filed: 28/06/2005)

Maths teaching in schools and universities has entered "a spiral of decline" and the Government has failed to grasp the nature of the crisis, leading mathematicians said in a report yesterday.

They said the performance of more able pupils had collapsed; the numbers taking A-level maths were falling dramatically; those with top grades were "increasingly innumerate and even ineducable"; the shortage of qualified maths teachers had reached "dangerous" levels; national test results were grossly inflated; and postgraduates with a PhD in maths from a British university were now "largely unemployable" in British universities.

The country was "no longer producing sufficient competent mathematicians to supply the bulk of its core needs". The maths community could no longer reproduce itself.

The report said: "Our society is increasingly dependent on mathematics, yet a disturbing number of jobs - from teaching, through IT, to serious research in science and technology - can now only be filled by attracting those trained in other countries.

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June 27, 2005
Are some British schools dangerous, nasty places?

Here is an excerpt for a Guardian article about 'youth cabinets' discussing the problems of the young:

There are too many exams; gangs are out of control (although some thoughtful voices ask what the difference is between a group of friends and a gang, concluding that it depends on which neighbourhood they are from); bullying makes many lives a misery and knives are becoming a common sight in playgrounds.

Sapphire, 15, from Leeds, thinks that by the time she has children most primary school pupils will be carrying knives. One boy says a gun was brought into the playground at his school. Crime seems a daily reality in these children's communities.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Behaviour & Crime • Education

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Home schooling is growing fast - but why?

For some time now I have been confident that the number of children being home-schooled has been rising fast.

Now comes confirmation from an article in the Sunday Times. What the article does not analyse is the cause of the trend. I would suggest that it is partly

1. dissatisfaction of middle class parents with the quality of education their children can get particularly, but not only, at state state schools.
2. Inability readily to pay for private education (which, arguably, is much more expensive than it should be, for a variety of reasons including state rules on planning, health and safety and so on).
3. Desire of parents to save their children from the violence and influences towards crime, drugs and teenage parenting in some of the more 'bog-standard' inner city comprehensives.

Here is the Sunday Times article:

Number of children taught at home soars Lois Rogers, Social Affairs Editor THE number of children taught at home has almost doubled in the past five years, a trend that experts say reflects a crisis of confidence in the state school system. Government figures show the number of five to 16-year-olds educated at home jumped from 12,000 in 1999 to 21,000 last year.

The increasing number of parents opting out of the school system reflects a similar trend in the United States, where one in 20 children is now taught at home.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Behaviour & Crime • Education • Parenting

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June 24, 2005
Private education in the third world

One of the many reservations I have about the Richard Curtis/Bob Geldof/Gordon Brown bandwagon to 'make poverty history' and have a million people pressurising the G8 is that they all, effectively, wish to bolster the state apparatus in African countries.

One of the areas where this could be counter-productive is education.

Professor James Tooley has been to third world private schools and reported on how the private schools often do more good for the poor than than the state schools.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education • Foreign aid

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June 18, 2005
The new, disappointing generation of Tories led by David Cameron

On Thursday 16th, David Cameron issued a speech about education. Since then Boris Johnson and other rising young stars have endorsed David Cameron as a candidate for the leadership of the Tory party.

After reading the speech David Cameron made, I find this all very depressing. It is a speech in which Mr Cameron positions himself as the Tony Blair of the Right. But more important than that, it is a speech in which Mr Cameron shows that he has not got to grips with how and why the country's welfare state - particulary the education part - is in such trouble. And the fact that many rising young Tories have endorsed him, suggests that they have not understood either.

He said in his speech,

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education • Politics

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June 14, 2005
The less well publicised education news

The Guardian and the Mail have a story which does not appear elsewhere in the national press, as far as I know. Why? Because this is a story about education that was not announced by the government.

The usual sort of stories reported by education correspondents are the ones announced by a minister and therefore widely reported. The plan that schools should offer 10 hour days was a recent one. These announced, 'good news' stories involve more money being spent and facilities offered.

But this story, only reported in two papers, is about education cuts.

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Hidden truancy

The amount of truancy from Britain's state schools is even higher than previously reported. It now emerges that:

Children who miss school during the rest of the summer term will not be counted in the official annual absence statistics for the year in England.

Schools are required to report pupils' attendance from September up to the end of May only.

Attention has been brought to this by the Liberal Democrats. The BBC Online story is here.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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June 13, 2005
Kelly's children

The objections to a ten hour school day, as proposed by the current education secretary, Ruth Kelly, are:

1. It will estrange children even more from their parents, leading to more children who feel unloved and become aggressive and ultimately delinquent.

2. The care will be cheap and bad.

3. Insofar as the state pays for this, families who actually look after their children will be taxed to finance childcare for families who don't have time to look after their children. This is undesirable and unfair.

4. Insofar as the state will not pay for this, it is something which schools could do now if they were so minded. (And if it is to become compulsory, then the state will end up paying, which takes us back to 3.)

Here is the Telegraph's coverage of the story.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education • Parenting

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June 10, 2005
We are not truanting, we are ill

The government threatens penalties for truancy. So what, in the real world, do we expect to happen? A smart reduction in truancy? or this...

Research for Cambridge University found sickness absences in a sample of 76 schools in England rose from 4.05% to 5.37% between 2002-03 and 2004-05.

Some head teachers and welfare officers said they thought parents were pretending their children were sick - or taking them on holiday.

The rise coincided with a government clampdown on term-time holidays.

You cannot get rid of truancy without getting rid of the causes of truancy. The most important of these is the poor quality of many state schools. Many of the children do not learn how to read and write easily. The classes they attend come to mean nothing to them. They become disenchanted. They are compelled by law to stay until they are 16. The consequences - truancy and delinquency, too - are inevitable.

The full BBC version of the story is here.

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June 07, 2005
The Thatcher years by Norman Tebbitt and others

I went to an event at the Institute of Economic Affairs last night at which several of the authors of a new book, Margaret Thatcher's Revolution, including Norman Tebbitt, spoke. Here are some of their remarks:

Dennis O'Keeffe: "much 'special needs' is about children who have not been taught to read".

David Marsland: Privatising the supply of healthcare (ie hospitals and doctors) is relatively easy. Privatising demand is more difficult. But a start could be made by using tax rebates to enable people to opt out of state-financed care.

James Stanfield: He went to a comprehensive school. He did GCSE in English Literature and did not do any Shakespeare at all. The year after he left, the headmaster was punched by a pupil as order faded. He reckons he got out 'just in time'. He wanted governments, if they are subsidising education, to subsidise the consumer, not the producer. He said he had been to Kenya and was appalled that the British government was exporting the failed British model of 'free and compulsory' education. He said, "British money is destroying education in Africa."

Norman Tebbitt talked of the huge transfer of assets that took place under Thatcher from the public sector to the private sector. He reeled off a list of companies privatised that was far longer than most of us can easily remember. On top of that was the sale of council homes. He said these things combined to make a big difference in social attitudes.

He admitted some failures.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education • European Union • Housing • NHS • Politics

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More graduates will not mean a richer Britain

The story about how graduates can expect to make less of a premium in the way of extra income in their working lives is more important than it first appears.

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June 06, 2005
King's College, Wimbledon totally gives up on A levels.

King's College previously offered students a choice of A levels or the International Baccaleureate (IB). Now it is going over entirely to the IB, says The Times.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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Tony Blair has a personal reason for pushing ahead with 'synthetic phonics'. But can he defeat the power of the DfES?

So synthetic phonics are now officially approved. But will this superior system of teaching reading and writing actually be adopted in schools? Will it save us from the current situation in which 20 per cent of British adults are 'functionally illiterate' according to the Government itself? It must be doubted.

Here is a (slightly edited) email from Tom Burkard, the well-informed and always interesting educationalist. He reveals - at least it is news to me - the personal background to the change that comes from within Tony Blair's family. He describes the ineffective implementation he fears and a better way he recommends:

Ruth Kelly has executed a stunning U-turn on the National Literacy Strategy.

Pressure had been growing ever since February 12. That is when the Scottish Office released the latest data from their trials of the teaching method known as 'synthetic phonics'. Pupils who were originally taught with this method in 1997 are now 3 1/2 years ahead in reading. These results are all the more remarkable in that the schools are located in a deprived rural area of Clackmannanshire, and that pupils from disadvantaged homes read just as well as their more favoured classmates. There are several other schools in Britain that have achieved similar, or even better, results through synthetic phonics.

However, ministers stoutly supported the official National Literary Strategy, despite pressure from Number 10 and a Commons Education Committee enquiry which was against the mandarins at the DfES. No doubt Ruth Kelly--like all recent Education Secretaries--had in mind the fate of poor John Patten, the last one to ignore the advice of his 'advisors'. Yet from her statements in defence of the NLS, there can be little doubt that Ruth Kelly is yet another 'true believer' in the entrenched orthodoxies of the educational establishment. On Thursday (June 2) the Sun published a photo of Kelly, apparently making her statement through clenched teeth.

There is no doubt that the change is a result of extreme pressure from Tony Blair, who elevated Andrew Adonis and appointed him as a junior minister in the DfES in order to get a grip on his insolent civil servants. It is an open secret that one of the Blair children was taught to read by a synthetic phonics tutor, and that he has long been impatient with official foot-dragging. However, it remains to be seen how things will work out.

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June 04, 2005
Attacking private schools is like banning fox-hunting

Why is the Labour Party leadership renewing its attack on private schools? Because private schools are like fox-hunting. Tony Blair does not really care about them one way or the other. But he attacks them both to try to persuade disenchanted Old Labour MPs and voters to keep on supporting him.

Private schools are disposable, as far as he is concerned, just like the men in red jackets blowing horns. If it pleases his rebellious troops to victimise them, he will do it. Pontius Pilate would have understood.

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June 02, 2005
Mr Brown spreads failure to Africa

Mr Brown thinks it is awful that many people in Africa have a limited amount of education. Without entering the truth or otherwise of that, his assumption that he should therefore subsidise state-provided education is wholly wrong. State education in Africa, as elsewhere around the world, is inferior to private and charitable education.

On a personal note, I know a young Zimbabwean woman who does what we in Britain would consider low-paid work. I asked her whether her young child in Zimbabwe would be going to a private or a state school.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education • Politics

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May 26, 2005
More schools turn to IB - but it is not ideal

At the Independent Education Conference earlier this month, I met a headmaster who told me that the number of schools using the International Baccalaureate in preference to A levels is rising fast. From memory, he said that there were 45 last year, there are 63 this year and there are applications to use the exam which, if they were all successful would bring the number up to over 150 next year.

It is a damning indictment of A levels.

I was surprised to hear two other things about the IB, though:

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May 21, 2005
The home-schooling boom in the USA
The number of homeschooled students has increased from 15,000 in the 1980s to an estimated 2 million in the current decade. Now, homeschoolers represent 1.8 percent to 3.7 percent of the U.S. student population, says NPRI.

More here.

In the UK, I believe there is also a boom in home-schooling just as there is a boom in faith-based, lower-cost private schooling. It is a case of people finding any way possible to avoid the defects of state schooling.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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May 19, 2005
The state finally realises that charities can do better but then spoils this breakthrough by forcing its own inefficiencies onto them

An email received today:

I've recently read your book and you raise a lot of good points. I teach in a college that retrains unemployed disabled adults and it is only too apparent that the welfare system has hindered as well as helped a large number of our students in the ways in which you describe. For many the financial incentive to work just isn't there, especially those with families, although often we are sucessful in changing peoples outlook and raising their aspirations.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education • NHS • Waste in public services • Welfare benefits

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May 17, 2005
What independent schools should do with their independence.

(This is an edited and slightly changed excerpt from my talk at the Independent Education Conference in Brighton last week.)

1) Don't be ashamed about what you do.

State schooling has failed. The emperor has no clothes.

According to the Department for Education and Skills, 34 per cent of the population has not achieved five GCSEs at grades A to C. Given that anything less than a C may not reflect true understanding or competence in a subject, it is a disturbing statistic. More than 14 per cent of the adult population in England has obtained no exam passes at all. That is even worse.

How many people is 14.1%? 4.4 million people – individuals who have been totally failed by state education. Overall, one fifth of adults in this country are functionally illiterate according to the government. That is a measure of the failure of state education. In contrast, virtually no one leaves a private school 'functionally illiterate'.

In addition to being better at teaching, some private, low-cost, faith-based schools are taking children from the badlands and changing their lives. You, here, are generally not doing something as dramatic as that. But you are doing something worthwhile that many state schools do not achieve. You are, in the main, creating young adults who will be decent. They will take jobs and get married, most of them, before having children. Yes, they might well have turned out all right in state sector. But then again, maybe not. The chances of them turning out as good citizens are higher because they attend your school.

The second thing you should do, follows from the first.

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May 16, 2005
The attack on private education through charity law is not over

One of speakers at the Independent Education Conference last week was a lawyer from the Charities Commission. He explained the law which the Labour Government almost brought in during its latest period in office (it ran out of time). He said it would, effectively, have obliged independent schools to do more charity work in order to avoid being taxed more heavily. The same law is now likely to brought in during the next few years. (The Queen's Speech may have more details.)

The truth is that the New Labour leadership needs ways to curry favour with Old Labour MPs and other supporters. Attacking private schools, like banning fox-hunting, is one way of achieving this end.

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May 13, 2005
Labour uses the private sector to rescue the NHS

The great irony is that the Labour government - the political descendants of Nye Bevan who nationalised the vast majority of hospitals in this country to make the system more efficient - is trying to patch over the failure of this NHS model by buying operations wholesale from the private sector.

If you want to know why waiting lists have been reduced, it is by a Labour government going, in desperation, to the private sector.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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Making an OFFA you can't refuse

I attended the Independent Education Conference at Brighton College yesterday.

One of the speakers was from OFFA, the Office for Fair Access. He explained the assembled heads of private schools that there was no need for them to think that OFFA was setting quotas for the proportion of children to go to universities from state schools - or, to put it the other way round, that there will be a quotas on children with better exam results from private schools that will be allowed to go to such universities. No, no. It was just that higher education was a 'public good'. Higher education resulted in economic benefits and those who had it were less likely to commit crimes, among other things. Access should be widened.

He said OFFA believes very much in 'autonomy' for universities. So what was going on was not OFFA-imposed quotas. Rather, universities were being asked to set their own 'targets' for the proportion of state school students and these targets and approaches to widening access were being "agreed" with OFFA.

After that, OFFAs role was to "monitor" how well each university was doing. He admitted that if a university did not do well and was clearly failing in its targets, then - and only as a last resort, he emphasised, because he was confident of agreement in the vast majority of cases - then the university might not be allowed to charge top-up fees.

This was, as one delegate said, "double talk".

To my mind OFFA - an instrument of government bullying - is like a man who goes to a woman and says: "Sexual intercourse is a public good. There is a lot of research indicating that it gives pleasure benefits. You are under no obligation to have sex with me. But I want you to write an 'access agreement' which includes a target of how often you will have sex with me. I very much believe in your autonomy, so I will set no quota. It will be your own target, which you set and I agree. After that, I will monitor how well you keep to your target. Incidentally, I have got a gun. What do you say?"

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May 11, 2005
NHS beds halve and crimes against the person up 281 per cent
The NHS is the world's third-largest employer with a million people on its books, second only to the Chinese Army and Indian railways. We spend some £80 billion a year on the NHS, equating to £1,400 annually for every man, woman and child. Despite this the number of NHS beds in England has halved in the past 25 years.
The average British woman will have 2.2 healthy pregnancies in her lifetime - almost enough to keep the UK population stable - but will give birth to only 1.7 children. The difference is accounted for by the number of abortions.
The number of people working in the public sector has increased by 10 per cent since 1998, accounting for some half a million of the new jobs created since Labour came to power.
Total public sector employment in 5.29 million, up from 4.71 million in 1997.
In 1981, 600,000 people claimed incapacity benefit. Now it is 2.2 million.
The greatest increases in recorded crime since 1997 have been in drug offences (509 per cent) and violence against the person (281 per cent) and there has been a drop in burglaries by nearly a fifth.
More than half the households in Britain have less than £1,500 in savings, and a quarter have no savings at all.
Teenage birth rates in Britain are twice as high as in Germany, and five times as high as in Holland.
150,000 children are educated at home, and the figure is rising. Bullying, harrassment and religion are the reasons most cited by parents for taking their children out of school.

From Britain in Numbers published by Politico's and serialised in today's Daily Mail.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Behaviour & Crime • Education • General • NHS • Parenting • Waste in public services • Welfare benefits

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May 10, 2005
Which kind of schools achieve forty per cent of top A level grades?

The most remarkable statistic is the final one:

...independent school pupils, who accounted for only 15 per cent of the total number of A-level candidates, were achieving a disproportionate share of A grades in the hardest subjects: 60 per cent in modern languages, 48 per cent in chemistry and 46 per cent in physics and maths.

At the same time, the gap in performance between independent and state schools was widening.

Over the past four years, the proportion of A-levels taken by fee-paying pupils had risen to 23 per cent, and the proportion of A grades they achieved to 40 per cent.

From the Daily Telegraph.

Of course, those who think state education is fine will like to think that the outperformance of the private schools (which take only 7 per cent of children at the outset) is all due to the richer families and the smaller classes in the private schools.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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The Prince Harry coursework scandal

One of the former art teachers is currently in court, claiming unfair dismissal from Eton College and claiming that she was told to help Prince Harry with his A level course-work.

In statements, she claimed that Mr Burke ordered her to help the prince with his AS-level art coursework in May 2002, which was to count towards his A-level result. She was told to add text to drawings he had done, explaining their context and inspiration.

(From the coverage in The Daily Telegraph.)

Coursework is one of the ways in which A levels have been degraded to the point that the results cannot be relied upon. Coursework is now plentiful and it is not only Prince Harry would, allegedly, has been 'helped'. Coursework is surely an open invitation to parents and teachers to help students get grades they otherwise would not achieve. It undermines the drive of a student to succeed by his or her own intelligence and work. It confounds trust in the system.

Why has coursework become so big in Britain? It would be interesting to know the process by which it happened. But it certainly serves the interests of government and many teachers in maintaining the pretence that standards of education remain high. When the test is not objective and unarguable, the result is all the more open to manipulation.

The people that the expansion of coursework does not serve are universities, employers, parents and children from backgrounds (normally the poorer and less well educated) where they will not receive 'help' with their coursework.

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May 05, 2005
More people saving to pay for private education

More people are saving more to pay for education.

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May 04, 2005
This election is not trivial

The media - especially the broadcast media - coverage of this election has been trivial and misled people about the importance of the differences between the parties.

BBC Television News last night was dominated by its senior political journalists traipsing after the three party leaders like lap-dogs. Andrew Marr, a clever, sophisticated journalist, was reduced to showing pictures of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown getting out of a helicopter and someone who used to be a Labour supporter expressing discontent to Mr Blair.

The newspapers concur with the idea that there is not much difference in the 'vision' of the parties. But that is nonsense.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education • NHS • Politics

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May 02, 2005
Postcard from Miami

I am in Miami and about to go to see a private school which takes children with state education vouchers and then a Catholic hospital which takes the poor.

It has been stimulating here. I have been reminded how big is the cultural gap between Britain and America in the way people talk, dress and relate to each other as well as in the landscape.

The most interesting part of the Heritage Foundation 'Resource Bank' (which seems to mean 'conference') was the session in which Patricia Levesque, a very personable, friendly, intelligent, senior woman of a sort we don't see much in the Britain, from the office of the Governor, Jeb Bush, explained the Florida programme for offering choice for school children. It became clear that the choice programme so far is tiny and yet has encountered fierce opposition. A man called Jay Green, from the Manhattan Institute, went through the testing of the success or otherwise of this same choice programme. The data he supplied appeared to be overwhelming. Not only did the children benefit but the children in the schools that were 'left behind' benefitted too.

There are many different programmes, but the biggest one allows handicapped children to move from the local government schools to other local government schools or to private schools (with the benefit of local government funding). You could call this a voucher scheme.

It was fascinating that the Manhattan Institute had actually gone to the lengths of testing what was the effect on the local government schools of having some children leaving. The effect was actually positive. He reckoned this was because of the incentive to perform that was placed on the local government school.

More soon. I have to go.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education • General

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April 27, 2005
Ruth Kelly's weasel words on reduced social mobility for the poor

State education was meant to improve the chances of the poor, but a here">new report suggests it is failing.

Among boys born in the poorest quarter of families in 1970, 38 per cent remained in the same bottom quarter of earners when they grew up. That is worse than boys born twelve years before, in 1958. Only 31 per cent of such children did not manage to go on and better themselves. It is an extraordinary indictment of 60 years and more of state control.

A system that was intended to give the poor an opportunity to rise in the world seems, instead, to be keeping them down.

Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, yesterday admitted there had been problems and said it was for "many reasons" - a weaselly response if ever there was one. She claimed the main reason was the expansion of higher education which had disproportionately benefited the middle classes. That could be a very small part of it. But far more fundamental is the fact that the poor are not being equipped by the state system to get into top universities in the first place.

Ruth Kelly argued that it was nothing to do with the grammar schools. Is that right?

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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April 25, 2005
State schools damage the poor
If you were born in 1958 into a family in the bottom quarter of income earners then you had a 17 per cent chance of getting into the top quarter of income earners by the age of 30. If you were born in 1970, that chance had declined to 11 per cent.

Peter Lampl, quoted in The Sun today.

Research by the Centre for Economic Performance is reported in many newspapers today. But this is the point at its most succinct.

State education was created to give children equal opportunity. Some even believed it would eliminate entirely the advantage of those who come from richer and better educated families. In fact it has done the very opposite. It has reduced the chances of the poorest to advance themselves. They have, instead, been condemned to the worst of the state schools where they have a very small chance indeed of getting an education that will give them the skills and the ambition to get to the top.

State education for the poor is now so inadequate and, in many cases, positively damaging, that probably the fastest growing trend in education today is for poor people to pay for private - usually faith-based - schooling.

The link to the report is here.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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April 21, 2005
The growth of school choice in the USA

The Heritage Foundation in the USA has a new website covering 'school choice' - that is how parents in different states are able to make choices in schooling, whether in private or public (local government) schools.

The Foundation asserts that school choice is a growing trend in America.

Home schooling is an example of 'school choice' and has grown very dramatically:

Home schooling is the practice of schooling students at home by parents or guardians. Home schooling is the fastest growing form of school choice. From 1994–2003, the number of home-schooled students rose from 345,000 to 1,100,000.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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April 20, 2005
Getting around the failures of state education

Over time, people will try to find ways to get round the poor and mis-directed delivery of services by the welfare state.

In education, since many schools are ineffective in their teaching, a large minority of parents now resorts to private tuition.

Since some schools are now places to be apprenticed in crime-craft, a small but fast-growing number of people - including those who are poor and thus condemned to the worst state schools - are moving their children to low-cost, fee-paying schools. These are often religion-based and teach good behaviour.

I wonder if the news that part-time further education has dramatically grown is another example?

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education • NHS

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April 19, 2005
Democracy - not much good at dealing seriously with serious matters

Democracy is a lousy system of government. It is just not as lousy as other systems. Here is Mike Baker, the BBC education journalist, pondering how it is that important issues in education are not being covered in the current election.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education • Politics

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April 07, 2005
Reading report

It sounds as though the select committee on reading has not taken as strong a line on 'synthetic phonics' as expected. Disappointing. The way that Mr Twigg, the minister, says that anything that the teachers do must be right, is a prime example of the way that the 'producer interest' is allowed to thrive in a state monopoly. This, of course, is at the expense of the interests of those whom the minister ought to be primarily concerned about: the children.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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April 06, 2005
State failure - due to 'criminal Tories'?

A series of interesting comments on a previous posting:

In response to my remarks on the failure of state education to improve social mobility, 'Joe' commented,

State education is only failing because the Tory criminals neglected it for so long. I dont think youll find they have the same problems with properly funded state education in European countries like Germany, France and Sweden. What your proposing would reverse social progress in Britain by 200 years, just to save you a few pounds on your tax bill.

'Ricky' responded,

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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March 31, 2005
You can't believe a word they say

A few things that have emerged about Ruth Kelly's plan to improve school food:

1. The money promised is mostly coming out of the existing education budget. It is not new money as was claimed at first.
2. The much-quoted figure of £280 million is misleading as a headline. I, probably like many people, assumed at first that we were talking about £280 million a year. In fact the money, or most of it, will be spent over three years.
3. The government carefully says that schools will be 'able' to increase the spend on primary school meals to 50p. But it is up to the local authorities whether or not this actually happens.
4. The extra money amounts to only 5p per meal.

The willingness of the Government to be misleading is breathtaking.

I would like to link to a strong piece in the Mail by Edward Heathcoat Amory but I cannot find it on the Mail website. Here is another good article by John Clare in the Telegraph.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education • Politics

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March 30, 2005
Making a dog's dinner out of school meals

The government has been shamed into having a stab at making school meals more nutritious. The main requirement is simply making more money available for schools to buy in higher quality food than you can get for 37p per child. But the government does not feel it has really intervened properly in a problem unless it does much more than that. So it is doing the usual things:

1. Set up an advisory body of well-paid professionals. This costs money. £60 million in this case, to be precise.
2. Arrange for inspections, in which well-paid professionals will go around schools demanding to know exactly what the children are eating. This costs money, too.
3. Impose centrally-drawn up requirements, requiring more well-paid people to have discussions, go to conferences, have secretaries and send out the instructions, and then insist that the headmaster (or perhaps other staff hired just to read instructions from various parts of the department) spends time reading and making sure the instructions are adhered to. This costs money, too, because the time of school staff has to be paid for.
4. Shift possible blame onto other people. In this case, create a 'toolkit' for parents (a subtle hint that it is all the fault of bad parents) and put responsibility onto governors of schools.
5. Spend money on (government-run?) training. This will require training the trainers, creating facilities and taking cooks away from their work in order to 'train'. This will cost money which will be inefficiently spent.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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If it fails, do more of it
The facts on social mobility are depressing. As the middle classes expanded after the war, there was considerable movement. But since the early 60s academic surveys tell us that mobility has declined. Studies show that for people in their 30s, the social class of their parents matters more than it did in the past.

Who said that?

Ruth Kelly in an article in today's Guardian.

Does she therefore conclude that state education, far from having improved social mobility, has damaged it and should be abandoned. Of course not, she concludes that she is capable of making changes that will reverse the course of the past 50 years and make state education a success.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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March 29, 2005
If teacher unions don't like them, can they be all bad?

I find myself agreeing with the Independent:

Delegates at the NUT’s annual conference voted unanimously to send a team of union representatives into areas where new academies are planned to persuade parents and teachers to stop any new scheme from getting off the ground. The three main teachers unions are now opposed to the scheme. A leader in today’s Independent argues: “That the teachers’ unions have taken against city academies is not necessarily a bad sign. Indeed, it could be interpreted as a perverse kind of recommendation. At best, it is an indication that such schools are starting to offer parents a real alternative to failing establishments and that unionised teachers, notoriously averse to change, fear the competition for pupils from more innovative institutions”

From Reform's daily newspaper summary. The Reform website is here.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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March 28, 2005
'Educare' may be low quality

A teaching union is worried that "educare" - the extended care of young children by state schools/nurseries - might not be of high quality. The research which indicates that nursery care outside the home is beneficial to children, always quotes "high quality" care as conferring a benefit. If the care is not "high quality", it can be damaging, instead. As the union is worried that the care will not be high quality, all of us should be.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education • Parenting

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March 26, 2005
American blacks choosing home education

An increasing number of black families in America are turning to home education because they are so disappointed with public (what we would call state school) education. The story is here.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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March 23, 2005
Now Citizen Blunkett will tell you what to think

From John Clare's excellent Any Questions section in the Daily Telegraph today:

My 14-year-old complains that his "citizenship" lessons are banal, pointless and silly. Having leafed through a textbook, I have to say his description barely does justice to the subject's banality. We feel his time would be better spent reading a book or a newspaper. Can he be excused these lessons?

Alas, no. Thanks to David Blunkett, citizenship is a compulsory part of the national curriculum in state secondary schools. According to the Government, it is about "the kind of society we are striving to build and the role of the state in the process". It also has "an important role to play in the intellectual and social development of individuals". In other words, it is a non-subject which, according to Ofsted, is one of the worst taught and least-liked in the curriculum.

It is an inherently bad idea that the government should tell the people what to think and it is a particularly bad that it should tell people how to be citizens. (The very choice of the word indicates a political judgement since Britain is a monarchy and we are, in theory, 'subjects', not 'citizens' - a concept popularised in the French revolution.) The government is there to serve people, not to boss them about. In "citizenship" classes, the scope for pro-government and clearly political propaganda is obvious. Schools need little encouragement to push a political or otherwise prejudiced point of view. The propaganda content in the teaching of geography, history and science continues to increase. The idea that an education should equip people to understand at least two sides to an argument is fading.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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March 21, 2005
More evidence about how computers in schools don't help
The less pupils use computers at school and at home, the better they do in international tests of literacy and maths, the largest study of its kind says today.

For the full story in the Daily Telegraph, click here.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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March 10, 2005
The LSE quota for state school students and the possible privatisation of universities

It is revealed in several newspapers today that the London School of Economics has been operating a secret quota system to favour the admission of state-educated students. It has been doing this, no doubt, because of the pressure from the government.

The news will increase the perception of those who pay a great deal to send their children to private schools that they are being discriminated against. This may add to the various factors tending towards a possible re-structuring of university education over the next ten or twenty years. Britain may develop some private, fee-paying universities. Other factors pushing in this direction are:

- The top universities including Oxford, Cambridge and the London School of Economics believe that the money they receive as part of state education is inadequate for them to cling onto their already doubtful ranking as world class. They are already flirting with the idea of 'going private'.

- Some universities, especially the London School of Economics, receive a substantial income already from foreign students. For them, it would not be such a major break to 'go private'.

- Students (or their parents) are now subject to top-up fees even when they stay in the state system. So the difference between the cost of going private and staying with the state is less than previously

- Gradually parents are learning from their children just how inferior state-funded university education in Britain is becoming. They hear how little contact the students have with teaching staff, how few essays they are set to write and, in effect, how much time is being wasted.

- Some parents also fear that universities, in one sense, actually damage the life chances of their children by instilling them with anti-business, neo-Socialist attitudes.

Already there is a trend for parents to send their children to American universities, at considerable expense. This trend is likely to continue unless some British universities go private.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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March 09, 2005
Quick, an inspector's coming! Bring out the computers!

I was being taken around a preparatory school in London and the head noted that a computer screen had been moved in one classroom. "Yes," explained the teacher. I put it in the front last week when we were being inspected. Now the inspectors have gone, I have returned it to the back."

It is a rather humiliating when independent schools feel they have to hide away the methods of teaching they really believe in because of government diktat. In this case, the teacher felt he had to pretend to believe in the "computers everywhere" idea that was, above all else, an attempt by Tony Blair - a politician, not an educator - to sound modern in 1997.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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March 05, 2005
Education only takes place if a teacher is present. Otherwise it is truanting.

There are two (related) attitudes that are fairly prevalent in education which should be in question. One is that absence from school for, say, a week, is appalling. The second is that education necessarily takes place when a teacher is present and, conversely, cannot be taking place when a teacher is not present.

If a middle-class parent takes a child out of school to get two weeks skiing that are actually in the skiing season (and one of which is in term time), it is treated with the shock and horror, as if the child's life was being blighted.

Taking a child away from school is considered a kind of sacrilege. In theory this is because everyone (supposedly apart from the parents) are so concerned about education. But education now is rather like religion (or religious practice, as it has been at various times in history). Form has come to be considered more important than the content.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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March 01, 2005
Discipline in schools didn't get better

Discipline in schools has deteriorated. That is the message of the recent report commissioned by OFSTED.

- In 1996/97, 76 per cent of schools said they had good levels of discipline. The figure had fallen to 68 per cent by 2003/04.
- Gang culture is perceived as widespread in a fifth of secondary schools.
- Children are caught carrying knives and other weapons at least once a term in two out of five schools.
- 'Challenging behaviour' is shown by up to half of pupils in some schools. 'Challenging behaviour' includes biting, pinching, throwing furniture, assault, disobedience and temper tantrums.

Of course this is not very scientific. A lot of what is being analysed are perceptions - both by teachers and inspectors. Nevertheless, where it is difficult to get hard evidence, we sometimes have to make the best of something less satisfactory.

The Government response to the news was typical.

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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February 22, 2005
The Reform manifesto

I went to the launch of the manifesto of the think-tank, Reform, today. Reform is an excellent organisation - very professional and with an effective approach. It closely analyses what is wrong with various parts of state provision, particularly healthcare and education so far. It offers key facts to opinion formers such as journalists. It offers a very useful daily email summary of the news. But the tough bit is when it comes to suggesting what should be done to make things better.

Medical care

Reform proposes: "Patients would be funded - either through the tax system or by way of universal insurance - to purchase healthcare from providers of their choice"

I am sure that a system such as Reform proposes would be an improvement on the NHS. But I fear there would be problems:

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education • NHS

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January 23, 2005
Relgious peril: what David Bell said about independent faith-based schools

For the record, what David Bell said about faith-based independent schools on 17th January:

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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January 18, 2005
Jeremy Paxman, David Bell - liberal fascists

(Originally published on predecessor website 18th January 2005. Re-posted for reference on this website on 3rd March 2006.)

There is something nasty about many members of Britain's elite. It is difficult to put one's finger on exactly what it is. But last night, the nastiness was on prominent display in Newsnight, on BBC2. I have come to think that perhaps the phrase for it is 'liberal fascism'.

Jeremy Paxman is liberal fascist. So is David Bell, the Chief Inspector of Schools. The two of them were talking to each other which is why - as they egged each other on - they made the bullying nastiness and arrogance of their attitudes so obvious.

David Bell had made a speech in which he said that Ofsted has identified a significant growth in the number of independent faith schools. There are now around 250 such schools, with around 100 Muslim schools educating around 14,000 pupils and more than 50 Jewish schools educating around 9,500 pupils. There are also more than 100 evangelical Christian schools.

Mr Bell said: "Parents should be able to choose how their children are educated and should be able to pay to do so. That is the mark of a free and open society. But faith should not be blind. I worry that many young people are being educated in faith, with little appreciation of their wider responsibilities and obligations to British society.

"This growth needs to be carefully but sensitively monitored by government to ensure that pupils at all schools receive an understanding of not only their own faith but other faiths and the wider tenets of British society. We must not allow recognition of diversity to become apathy in the face of any challenge to our coherence as a nation. We must be intolerant of intolerance."

That last last phrase could be considered the slogan of the Liberal Fascists. "We must be intolerant of intolerance." It sounds tough but decent. But what is the reality behind that soundbite?

Posted by James Bartholomew • Indexed in Education

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