Thursday, May 17, 2007

Education, education, education: #1

Long-time readers will know that few things sent your humble Devil into a flying, spitting rage than the utter failure of Britain's education policy. It has been a catastrophic failure, a triumph of managerialism and politicking over common sense, and I hold politicians, teachers and their unions equally responsible for the blighting of millions of lives. But most of all I blame the managerialist culture and determination to ensure equality of outsome predicated by the evil cult of socialism.

Old Labour's disgusting and blinkered view of education can best be summed up by that odious turd, Prescott, who said (as quoted by David Cameron back in January 2006):
"If you set up a school and it becomes a good school, the great danger is that everyone wants to go there".

This is, quite obviously, a fucking stupid thing to say but—hey!—it's Prescott; really, what did you expect?

However, if you read on in that debate, one can find a rather telling quote from Blair, in a reply to David Cameron.
I have read some on education as well and I am delighted to note that [David Cameron] now agrees with us that there should be no return to academic selection, so we are in favour of greater freedom for schools and no return to academic selection. Therefore, I look forward to his support.

So, Willetts' announcement that the Conservatives no longer favour grammar schools or academic selection should not really have come as a surprise. However, that Cameron nows feels that any debate around academic selection is pointless may be something of a surprise to many.
Conservative leader David Cameron has attempted to calm a row with his own MPs over selection in schools, saying the debate is "entirely pointless".

The MPs are angry about plans to scrap Tory support for grammar schools and selection based on academic ability.

The first thing that I want to look at is whether or not grammar schools are a good thing?

The first thing that must be admitted, if any progress is to be made, is that the current education system is an utter failure. Yes, there are good comprehensives, but the system as envisioned—a decent education for every child regardless of background—has failed. That we have anyone leaving school, after 11 years of compulsory education, functionally illiterate and innumerate is a fucking disgrace.

In good part, this is down to the stupid, left liberal attitudes of teachers which were strongly developed throughout the sixties and especially the seventies. Stupid fuckwits, like the headmaster of my primary school who decreed that no one could "win" any races on the school sports day, have tried to force through the notion that all children are not only equal, but the same. This is, of course, to anyone who has lived... well... in the world for more than about two years, patent crap.

The idea of a decent education for all was a laudable one, but we must also acknowledge that a form of selection already exists. The most often cited example is that of middle-class parents buying property within the catchment area of a good school. Fairly soon, poorer people are priced out of the area—natural supply and demand economics driving up the price of houses and rent—and so their children are left to the tender mercies of the shitty schools. Or, in some cases, making average schools into shitty ones.

The problem many people have with grammar schools is that they are seen almost as something utterly removed from comprehensive education. People look on them almost as private schools; but they are not. They are publically funded schools, and thus actually part of the comprehensive system, that were allowed to select by academic ability, through the 11+ exam (which mainly tested a child's ability to think and reason, as well as their academic prowess. Or so I remember it).

Many people have touted grammar schools are inherently "a good thing" without making the case for why this should be (I raised this with UKIP when they previewed their Education Policy [PDF] back in October). They are not quintessentially good, in and of themselves; they are good because children learn better when surrounded by other children of a similar ability. This is why streaming works so well.

Grammar schools are simply the first stage; what I refer to as "coarse streaming". You are starting by sorting out the academically inclined and those with intelligence and reasoning skills and placing them in one stream. The others, who are not so bright, are then fed into another stream.

The crucial thing at this point is that the streaming should have continued within the schools. In grammars it was less necessary: you had people who were, on the whole, keen to learn and clever enough to be stretched (which is why a recent survey found that poor children performed significantly better in grammar schools).
Children who go to grammar schools in England achieve better grades than those of similar ability who are not in selective areas, researchers claim.

A Bristol University study suggested pupils from poorer backgrounds do particularly well.

It was in the comprehensives that streaming was really needed and, thanks to the hideous policies of successive lefty governments, spurred by the left-leaning teachers' unions, this didn't happen. It is this, as much as anything else, that has led to the appalling situation we are now in.

David Cameron has attacked the 11+ on the same grounds that many others have: that 11 is far too early to test children; some children develop later than others.
"In 18 years of Conservative government, we didn't create a whole big number of grammar schools because parents fundamentally don't want their children divided into sheep and goats at the age of 11."

Well, that rather depends, doesn't it? I remember doing the 11+ and it was a piss-easy exam, far more like the IQ tests that I took at a later date than the more academic exams that I took later. Some people, of course, like Iain Dale, simply didn't understand the significance of the test that they were sitting, an unforgiveable failure on the part of his teachers.
Now, let's look at the other side of the argument. In 1973 I failed my eleven plus. I failed it because I wasn't even told I was taking it. We had taken so many government tests that year that we all decided not to take this one seriously.

Surely, there is an easy solution to these two situations? Isn't it staring everyone in the face? Yes, that's right: you devise 13+ (something similar is proposed in UKIP's Education Manifesto [PDF]), for instance. David Cameron would have been, I guess, 13 when he took the Common Entrance exam to gain entry to Eton. (With my birthday in August, I was 12 when I took the Eton Scholarship exam.) If someone hasn't developed academically by the age of 13, I don't really think they are going to do so to any extent that will make a difference.

It is important that streaming is broken down across types of subjects, if not single subjects (a task that was certainly beyond Eton's resources so unlikely to be replicated by any state funded school). So, modern studies (english, Geography, History, etc.) can be taught together, as can languages (Latin, French) and then Maths and the sciences (Biology, Physics and Chemistry: not this fucking Combined Sciences shite that they teach these days).

Streaming should also be flexible, hence the idea of a 13+. But it should also be flexible within schools, and that means mock exams or some other mode of assessment. I tend to think that exams are the best way (with a small amount of continuous assessment); they not only give pupils something definite to work towards, but also serve as valuable practice for public exams. Depending on how you do in those exams determines your stream (or "set" to use the Old Coll's parlance) for the next term. Very occasionally, if a teacher, at Eton, spotted that a pupil was utterly unsuited for the set that they were in, then midterm transfers were allowed. The point was that the children's education came first, not the teachers' convenience, not the political aspirations of the teaching unions, and certainly not the whims of the government of the day.

So, my support for grammar schools is based on notions of practicality, not of social engineering or of some kind of misplaced loyalty to a system that I never passed through (I could have done, having easily passed my 11+).

Many people claim that grammar schools help social mobility. However, David Willetts maintains, as does Cameron, that grammars now entrench social priviledge and do not help the poorer children.
Many people, genuinely worried about social mobility, believe that grammar schools can transform the opportunities of bright children from poor areas. For those children from modest backgrounds who do get to grammar schools the benefits are enormous. And we will not get rid of those grammar schools that remain. But the trouble is that the chances of a child from a poor background getting to a grammar school in those parts of the country where they do survive are shockingly low. Just 2% of children at grammar schools are on free school meals when those low income children make up 12% of the school population in their areas.

Unfortunately, Willetts seems unable to grasp, with either of his brains, that there are a vast number significant biological and economic reasons for this. Here are a few of them.
  • Demand outstrips supply. Grammar schools were always in short supply; that was, after all, part of the point. However, that evil fuck Crosland started to destroy them—famously saying "If it's the last thing I do, I'm going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales and Northern Ireland."—and the Conservatives, under Thatcher, carried on with aplomb. Therefore, an already restricted supply of places became yet more restricted. And so those with a certain amount of money to adapt to these changes, i.e. the middle classes, began to dominate.

    As The Lovely TrixyTM puts it:
    Of course, due to the policies of recent governments, there are not enough grammar schools in the country to ensure that all bright children have the option of going to a grammar school. What this achieves is a system where children with richer parents can either afford to send their child to a private school, or they can afford to move house to an area where there is a grammar school, where house prices will be more expensive.

    By abandoning grammar schools we are holding back brightest children from all areas of society, to the detriment of the whole country. Simple.

  • Location, location, location. The vast majority of grammar schools were closed in inner cities, where the poorest people lived (and, to an extent, still do); where, not entirely coincidentally, Labour's strongest election showings tend to be. Thus there was simply no way that the poorest even had access to a grammar school to start with. Again, it was the destruction of grammar school places that emphasised this rot.

  • Circumstance and biology. There are many reasons why some people are poor and why they remain so. I would be willing to bet, for instance, that there is a strong correlation between intelligence and income. Assuming that intelligence is, at least partly, inherited genetically from one's parents (and, since every other thing in the human body is, to deny this would be foolish in the extreme), it would tend to imply that the poorest were less likely to pass the 11+ even if they had a grammar school in their area.

    Also, to a great extent, those who are ill-educated are often less concerned about the level of ediucational attainment of their offspring. This attitude has become more and more entrenched over the last 60 years as the Welfare State has ensured that, for many people who would only get low-paid jobs in any case, a life on benefits is far more comfortable.

But even in that face of all of this, it must be remembered that, whether they are doing so for fewer people or not, grammar schools are still one of the best engines of social mobility for those children who get into them.

But should the Tories have committed to creating more grammar schools? Not in my opinion. I would suggest something rather more radical; more on that in a bit. But, I should point out that, if you are a fan of grammar schools (and if the more radical idea is not to be introduced, then I would favour the creation of more grammars) then I should remind you that the only sensible party still supporting them is UKIP (my breakdown of their first-draft Education Policy).

The Tories do have a rather more pressing problem right now: the disgust with which they are now viewed. My father said: "this is isn't a Clause 4 moment for the Tories; this is a Sheffield Rally moment." He believes that without swift action, this could lose the Tories the next election.

Grammar schools are a totemic issue, and the Tories' rejection has certainly lost them activists like Harry Haddock.
Schools that engage in academic selection teach kids something that they will have to deal with from the moment they leave full time education; in business, in politics, and even in love. You will not run a successful business without understanding competition. You will not be able to form successful policies if you don’t understand choice. You will die sad and lonely if you will not compete for you desired mate.

I now understand where Dave is coming from, so, officially, I am now a man without a party. I suspect Dave won’t mind too much, but it utterly, utterly, depresses me.

The Nameless Tory One echoes that sentiment to an extent.
Selection is a part of life, and children should be made aware of this and should be equipped to deal with this when they leave school. Because as soon as children grow up and venture into that cliched, but unavoidable, arena of the real world, they will see that selection based on academic intelligence, practical capability and emotional intelligence is not only common, but actually the norm.

The Englishman is also unhappy, James Cleverley still supports grammars, even Iain Dale—our friendly neighbourhood "failed wannabe MP who
didn't get a seat at the last election
" (which strikes me as a bit of tautology, frankly)—deplores this announcement.

However, there really is an alternative to all of this; it was an alternative that the Conservatives mooted at the last general election and have since dropped. Jackart introduces the concept.
In short, there's much that's good in Willett's speech, but little on the one policy which has demonstrably succeeded in improving the lot of the poorest people in society: School Vouchers. Willetts pointed out the problem with vouchers is that they would not work their magic immediately and that unless combined with deregulation of the education market, they will not work at all.

Hmm. Yes, David, Well done, have an apple.

Well, no measure is going to work immediately, David; but would you have turned around to Thatcher and urged her not to introduce monetary reform because it would not work its magic immediately? Sometimes, I wonder...

Anyway, like Jackart, Wat Tyler thinks that Willetts' speech was rather more hopeful for those of us who support a freer education system.
[Willetts] proposes a massive freeing up of the supply side to make it much easier for charitable trusts and even groups of parents to start new schools, thus providing much more choice. He wants Blair's academies on steroids.

And even more interestingly, he talks warmly of vouchers:
"If a parent’s request for their child to get to the school of their choice is written on the back of a cheque to pay for it then the letter is going to get far more attention. This is a powerful and important argument."

Now I don't know about you, but I'd previously understood that Friedmanite vouchers had been ruled a total no-go zone for Dave's Conservatives. And if that's now changed, the world is transformed. Everything changes. In fact I could even start to get excited about Mr W as Education Secretary.

Because once you combine new schools, greater parental choice, and vouchers (probably weighted up for disadvantaged kids), then suddenly you're talking a whole new ballgame. One where choice and competition drive improvement, just like they already do in the vastly superior independent sector. And one where- as he notes- other countries like Sweden and the US are already playing.

But, such a system has to be managed efficiently— or, rather, political management has to be removed almost entirely.
I hope he understands the reality. Which is that a voucher based system will only deliver the improvement he envisages if good and popular schools are allowed not only to expand, but also to control their own admissions. It is absolutely vital that they remain in control of managing their own business, a crucial part of which is matching the kids to the school. Bog standard is out.

Which means that, while the name written on the back of a cheque will always command attention, just as at many of the very top independent schools, the cheque alone is not enough. Indeed, the essence of a voucher sytem is that it promotes the kind of competitive diversity already available in the independent sector. And part of that has to be that schools have a right to select on academic ability.

So such a policy is not politically painless. But then neither is any real world system, and this is the only one that holds out the promise of meaningful improvement. Because under a voucher system, as well as good academic schools catering for academic kids, you get good "non-academic" schools equipping less academic kids with the skills they will actually need to make the most of their lives. Just as in the independent sector, the cheques from the parents of less academic kids will drive improvement far beyond anything even dreamed of in most of those old underfunded demoralised Sec Mods.

Does Willetts understand the reality? A good question. However, what is painfully obvious is that he is, like Letwin, utterly unable to communicate his intentions. In fact, it's painful how bad he is.

But what about vouchers? Do they work? Well, for loony libertarians such as Wat and myself, there really is no argument. Strange Stuff introduces the thinking behind them.
If they think that Academies would be better for children than Grammars then will be right, and wrong. For some people Academies would be better, for some Grammar schools, but then for others home schooling would be best or one of the many other approaches to schooling.

What is best for whom is something that cannot be set from central government dictat. The only people that really know what is best for an individual child is the people that really know the child in question, parents of the children themselves, and even then it might take some trial and error. Instead of simply being yet another politician with a Plan for what he thinks is best for everybody, it would be better to have proposed a framework to allow parents to be able to pick what is best for their individual children.

The key point here, really, is the concept of choice. And choice implies competition and competition works, as this Economist article on school vouchers shows (via The Adam Smith Institute).
Opponents still argue that those who exercise choice will be the most able and committed, and by clustering themselves together in better schools they will abandon the weak and voiceless to languish in rotten ones. Some cite the example of Chile, where a universal voucher scheme that allows schools to charge top-up fees seems to have improved the education of the best-off most.

The strongest evidence against this criticism comes from Sweden, where parents are freer than those in almost any other country to spend as they wish the money the government allocates to educating their children. Sweeping education reforms in 1992 not only relaxed enrolment rules in the state sector, allowing students to attend schools outside their own municipality, but also let them take their state funding to private schools, including religious ones and those operating for profit. The only real restrictions imposed on private schools were that they must run their admissions on a first-come-first-served basis and promise not to charge top-up fees (most American voucher schemes impose similar conditions).

The result has been burgeoning variety and a breakneck expansion of the private sector. At the time of the reforms only around 1% of Swedish students were educated privately; now 10% are, and growth in private schooling continues unabated.

Anders Hultin of Kunskapsskolan, a chain of 26 Swedish schools founded by a venture capitalist in 1999 and now running at a profit, says its schools only rarely have to invoke the first-come-first-served rule—the chain has responded to demand by expanding so fast that parents keen to send their children to its schools usually get a place. So the private sector, by increasing the total number of places available, can ease the mad scramble for the best schools in the state sector (bureaucrats, by contrast, dislike paying for extra places in popular schools if there are vacancies in bad ones).

More evidence that choice can raise standards for all comes from Caroline Hoxby, an economist at Harvard University, who has shown that when American public schools must compete for their students with schools that accept vouchers, their performance improves. Swedish researchers say the same. It seems that those who work in state schools are just like everybody else: they do better when confronted by a bit of competition.

It really is worth reading the whole article, but it is that last paragraph that is really important. Vouchers raise standards for all. And all schools are improved by competition.

The trouble is that politicians do not like letting go of power and if voucher funded schools are to succeed then they must, as Wat Tyler says, be freed from the yoke of government targets and regulation.



Andy Cooke said...

I'm with Wat Tyler on this one: Willetts said that Education Vouchers wouldn't work unless there was major deregulation first - and then said "So this is how we're going to deregulate" and essentially advocated the government not poking its nose in any more.

It looks very much as though he's convinced Cameron to bring the Education Vouchers back to the table and will introduce them gradually.

He's right about grammar schools, by the way. I went to one myself and my sister and I were the only ones from our primary school who passed the 11+ in the previous several years. My mother had scrimped and saved to send us to a private primary school for our first 3 years each (God knows how my parents managed that on a door-to-door salesman plus a barmaid's income) - and he's right when he says that 11 is too late for many bright-but-poor kids. He's also right when he says that for the bright-but-poor kids who do beat the odds to get in, grammar schools are great for them.

Incidentally, the Tories that are up in arms over the "we won't close any but we won't build any more" stance with grammar schools - where have they been since 1970? Didn't they notice the zero increase in grammar schools from 1979-1997 (I'm missing out the 1970-74 Heath Government because I don't really see Heath as a Conservative)?

-sarcasm- Oh damn Cameron - he's got the same policy on grammar schools as Thatcher! Totally Blue Labour! And supply-side deregulation and moving towards Education Vouchers - there's not even a fag-paper's gap between the Parties now -/sarcasm-

Sorry about the sarcasm bit - it has infuriated me watching ConHome over the past couple of days. Rants on "How dare Cameron decide to scrap all the grammars!" - loads of people who obviously have no clue over the actual speech but are cheerfully spouting out the (probably NuLab spun) media line.
I come here, to a vehement (very) ex-Tory's site (who doesn't exactly mince his words) and you've taken the trouble to read the actual speech and pick out salient points - so it's quite a pleasant contrast from the uninformed rantings (Not that you don't rant, but I can always rely on your rants to be informed ranting :).

Kit said...

Why not tax credits? The Mackinac Center has a piece on the benefits of a tax credit system over a voucher system:

The biggest advantage is that the government cannot interfere with how the money is spent.

Devil's Kitchen said...


I'll read it in full but my instinctive reaction is that some control is good.

Because, much as I would love to think that they wouldn't, many parents would piss the cash up the wall on fags and booze, etc.


Roger Thornhill said...

An excellent post, DK.

For vouchers to work the LEAs would need to be taken out of the loop and schools free to decide their selection criteria (rationing by geography or lottery or selection by ability - artistic, academic, sports etc). Good schools need to flourish, new schools need to be created and bad schools need to die. If this is not done, vouchers will be meaningless for the vast majority as the LEAs would herd kids into unpopular but emptying schools.

If you stream it is almost essential that you select by ability for the school, otherwise it will need to be a massive place as the logistics of multiple streams in mulitple subjects across all years becomes apparent.

My slightly premature post on the Willetts presentation did put forward a solution, part of which that Grammar-chocked County of Kent already does, I have subsequently found out - Comps geared up to move bright kids into the Grammars at 13.

To cap it off we need to reform and curb Welfarism so the entropic Charver/Chav mentality is blown out the classroom window by the icy blast of reality. Only then will poor kids have a reasonable chance to blossom.

Unity said...

Quick points:

Grammar schools - I'm with Tony Crosland, get rid of the fuckers but take the simple route of conversion by abolition of the 11+.

Streaming and specialisation - yes, but by aptitude not simply academic ability and must add greater scope for vocational education.

Vouchers - we're actually looking at this seriously on the left, the Swedish data looks compelling.

(That'll fuck with a few heads on your side)

First impressions - given safeguards to avoid creation of sink schools, which amounts to flexibility for good schools to take over the underachievers and turn them round plus constraints on location or free travel - physical mobility is a issue in poorer areas - then its a yes for exploring the idea.

Getting shot of 'combined science' - damn fucking straight we do. Science is not subject, physics is a subject.

National Curriculum - keep in place for empirical subjects, there should be no fucking argument about common standards for maths, physics, etc. More latitude in curriculum on other subjects and more scope for a wider range of subjects.

Religion - fuck no, not if the state's paying for it but if 'faith schools' want to offer it out of normal hours that's up to them. I think that's a fair compromise - oh and the religious assembly crap goes as well.

Devil's Kitchen said...


Broadly speaking, I'm with you on all of those points. Most actually anticipate the second part of this post, which will deal with my "ideal" solution...


RadioActive Chief said...

Very interesting discussion. Over here in the colonies, we are hassling with the same issues...but with a slightly different flavor.

I also concur with the voucher idea, as an educator for a quarter century, my experience is that often the effect of administrative driven efforts at "reform" have the result of shifting the blame for problems to the classroom teacher, while at the same time removing any effective support for dealing with trouble at that level....and then it is asked why there are problems.

The described congruence that you have described between the EngSoc Laborites and the...whatever?...Tories on these things has a strong parallel over here with the Republocratic Demicans scrambling to jump into a shared political bed as rapidly as possible, to the detriment of anything effective happening.

I will be looking out for your part II of this post.

Oh yeah? So what has happened for the last ten years, exactly?

Over at the ASI, they are posting some of the winning entries of the Young Writers on Liberty. One does not want to put such keen minds off,...