Alison Wolf is one of the best and most original thinkers on the public sector and education. This is not a piece of blatant pro-free market dogma; she is someone with a deep understanding of how the public sector really does work, and the perverse consequences that can follow decisions which override local considerations. In the next few years, policy makers who are passionate about providing good public services, but also need to recognise fiscal constraints, will need to think harder about how things are currently done. The era of the shopping list is over. This sort of bold thinking is a really excellent start.
Posts Tagged ‘Education’
Mine is probably David Willetts. I met him a couple of years ago, and may well have passed him a canape, as that was the role I played at the event he spoke at. He is famously brainy, and worked under Nigel Lawson when the latter was Chancellor*. He got in trouble with the Right of his party over grammar schools, questioning their sacred view that these schools are the key to social mobility, in a speech that my better informed education expert friends think is one of the best ever made on education.
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 . . . If the evidence were different and if grammar schools could still work as they might once have done, transforming the opportunities of many children from poor backgrounds then we would be obliged to look very seriously at the case for their introduction. But the fact is that grammar schools don’t any longer work like that.
Anyway, commenting on the death of Salinger, he has written a good column in the Times that clearly denies some of the views of miserabilists who think the young are, well, bad:
Many other indicators show the generation gap healing. Parents spend more time with their children than they used to. One in ten parents of children aged 16 to 24 say that they have serious arguments with them, but one in five say that they had big rows with their own parents when they were the same age. . . . And young people themselves respect their parents’ values. The conventional wisdom that young people lack aspiration is wrong: most young people have mainstream aspirations. They want a decent job and to settle down and raise a family. Surveys of our most disengaged young people, the Neets (not in education, employment or training), found that they had surprisingly mainstream aspirations — one unemployed young person said that his ambition was to have a utility bill addressed to him personally.
So, they are not bad: they are badly off, for generational reasons that less thoughtful advocates of freemarket thinking would ignore or fail to spot:
This generation gap is even more stark when we look at who owns what. As we slowly accumulate wealth during our lives we might expect the older generation to be richer. But again the gap has widened: it is the generation ahead that sits on all the wealth tied up in their houses and their pensions. It is going to be much harder for the younger generations . . . (of the baby boomers) First, they borrowed to buy their first house, then high inflation in the 1970s and 1980s wiped out their debts. Then they had high wages when they were young. Now, as retirement looms, the arrival of China and India in the world trading system is holding down the wages of their children. And on top of that we are now leaving a heavy burden of public debt around their necks.
A Conservative who recognises that we don’t have a total collapse of respect in this country; who doesn’t think that grammar schools solve all educational issues; who recognises that the distribution of wealth is a problem. How much more difficult would be my voting decision, if Willetts were Shadow Chancellor, rather than the current lot who seem to be getting more and more muddled (see Paul C on LibCon) and is prone to making wrongheaded comparisons with Greece.
*say what you like about Lawson’s views on climate change, but his qualifications to be Chancellor were awesome, and his book on that period is arguably the best account of being a Chancellor, or antagonist to Lady T, that you can read. All 1000 pages of it.
I am not sure how often this needs to be asserted. But let’s keep doing so all the same. As CentreForum has repeatedly argued – most recently in Time’s Up, a paper directed at the Liberal Democrats’ determination to scrap tuition fees, at great expense – the current way in which tuition fees are paid for does NOT put off the really disadvantaged from studying.
The latest evidence is from the funding agency Hefce. It finds:
Youngsters in the poorest areas are 30% more likely to go to university than they were five years ago . . . A fifth of the poorest youngsters go to university, up from an eighth in 2004
I don’t wish to rub it in. But the pro-tuition fees side of the argument really has won. And as the fiscal squeeze makes awkward choices ever more awkward, this may even filter down to the most determined activist.
Oh, and it looks like the IFS agrees:
Reforms to tuition fees and student support had no overall impact on the number of 18 or 19 year olds attending university in England
Julian Astle, co-director with a particular specialism for education policy, has produced a policy review taking a hard look at Conservative plans for the education system.
It’s good that Michael Gove, their education spokesman, believes in a pupil premium – so did CentreForum, with Tackling Educational Inequality playing an important part in influencing policymakers towards this radical idea. But does he have the money – or the ability to confront his core constituency in leafy shires, who may see reduced funding going forward?
We also welcome his support for a more decentralised approach to education. But how do you square this with his prescriptive and wrong-headed approach to a ‘traditional’ curriculum (argued about here)? Will he not be another Ed Balls but from the tradition of Tory bossiness rather than Labour authoritarianism?
Here is the PDF. Please let me/us know what you think.
Here is one of my major hobby horses.
Alix has blogged on Michael Gove’s list of what should be learned in History. It is a long list of British things: the Romans civilized us, 1066, our gradually gaining democracy, the Industrial Revolution, then the whole Nazi Wars thing that seemed to dominate my GCSE’s. She finds all sorts of things missing:
Mr Gove doesn’t want children to learn about the British Empire . . . He has basically drawn his conception of a good history syllabus from that of a prep school circa 1965 . . . Nothing about European events that have impacted immediately on the history of Britain . . . Nothing about the history of Catholicism and Protestantism in this country . . . Nothing about the impacts of the industrial revolution on agriculture and traditional social patterns in rural Britain, nothing about the Corn Laws and other protectionist, er, Tory policies . . . Nothing about the crusades or any other interaction with Islam
She’s very funny, Alix: “He conceives of history as a sort of collectors’ stamp book in which you have to fill in all the little boxes with kings, queens and battles in order to “know” history, yes, very good.”
But I think she goes nowhere near far enough. The problem for me is that Gove wants that incredibly narrow thing, British history. Somehow people have got it into their heads that to make people love their countries you need to construct big myths that put their country at the centre of everything (see Civitas for an explicit endorsement of this).
Whereas I think it’s the other way round: people who are bright and have a grown-up love of their country tend to read and be aware of their history. You don’t forcefeed them myths and then find them miraculously turned into great citizens.
So it annoys the hell out of me that people can name the wives of a parochial northern European king who barely ruffled European let alone world history, but not much about someone who bestrode the whole of Eurasia, bringing down centuries-old empires wherever he went.
We live in a very special country. The fact that Britain managed to go forth, send its instutions, language and bloodstock all over the world is profoundly weird, and demands imaginative investigation. But doing the historical equivaluent of studying the wallpaper will tell us nothing about how the house got built. The really interesting question in history is: why us? Why the British, why the Europeans?
Is this because of biased history-telling – because an alien watching history from space would have spent most of his time gazing at the Far East, where just as we were recovering from our “Dark Ages” they were advancing at astonishing speed? Are Europeans intrinsically unable to comprehend these things? Is it all about geography, timber and the way the waters flowed? Or are Western institutions intrinsically better for capitalism?
The Brito-centric account of human history – even with Alix’s gaps filled in – leaves a huge amount of ignorance in its wake. And leaves us missing out on some extraordinary historians. Forget your David Starkeys and Niall Fergusons. Have you heard of Fernand Braudel? Drop everything to read The Mediterranean and just gawp at the richness and diversity of real history. Then try turning back to some turgid account of Queen Elizabeth, and you realise that you thought you’d done the 16th Century and in fact it was like spending a weekend in the Isle of Wight.
Above all, the kings-and-politicians account of history leave out the major insights of economic historians, above all Marx. Forces beyond the control of ordinary people swept history along – be they geographical (Guns germs and steel) or the shape of social institutions. With Gove’s curriculum we have precious little chance of understanding the future. Just a passport to more costume drama history.
. . . and carting jam jars full of sweets into school, and boxes of laboriously-decorated fairy cakes? Well, the school has a Pet Show, which means getting about 100 parents to spend great chunks of domestic time preparing stalls, games and tombolas in order to sell these things . . . to one another.
Eventually, after the bouncy castle man has been paid, the sweet wrappers cleared up and everyone has trooped home with everyone else’s cake, the Friends of Hogwarts might find themselves with a four-figure sum, which goes towards making the already excellent Hogwartian facilities even more firmly ensconced in the top decile.
And holding down a struggling miniature Schnauzer, I ask myself: why? Why are time-starved members of the middle class slaving away in the evenings for an effective wage of £5-10 per hour?*
It seems like a bizarre refutation of the principle of comparative advantage, rejecting Smithian gains. Trained lawyers, doctors and bankers, instead of doing what they do best at £100 per hour, are reverting to some kind of daft barter economy** in which everyone has to show themselves part of the self-sufficient commune for a while.
It would be easy to poke holes in the economic-madness of the affair, but people are always doing things that don’t ‘add up’ in that way. But the wealthy classes standing by the tombola clearly possess lively awareness of the advantages of hiving off lower-value work on other people (i.e. the nanny). In fact, they are probably having to pay the nanny more in order to have time to collect jam jars. And many of them moan about how they would rather send a cheque.
One mitigating factor is that the kids love the day out. For them, the jam jars and assorted expensive puppies being graded is as much fun as Chessington (which costs much more). However, this still doesn’t explain the deliberate terrible use of underpaid labour (i.e. hassled mums). Why not club together, donate £50 per family, and have a really professional show – and then some time to drink an evening glass of wine with your spouse without having to worry about the quality of the icing on your cake? After all, we pay for others to do drycleaning . . .
I think it must be some sort of implicit entry-ticket to the school – the fees of which are not the highest. Here some of the more experienced Marxist thinkers could help me out. Poorer families, even if they could scrape £9k per year (and perhaps some in the 7-9th decile could), would really struggle to find the time to show willing at all these events. It would start feeling really uncomfortable. Sometimes, as I mentioned, you can only really do it because you can afford to pay someone nice from Eastern Europe to do other things for you.
But this feels malicious. Why erect deliberate, perverse and frankly exhausting entry barriers around your school? Is it really so important to stop your kids mixing with poorer kids?
Simon Crompton in Prospect asks a similar question about the excessive levels of parental participation now demanded in primary schools:
My wife and I scrabble around painting cardboard and tying up sheets, sometimes even buying a costume that our nine-year-old won’t find embarrassing. It seems like harmless fun. But dressing-up days, extra homework, pressure on school attendance and the expectation that parents should do more to support their children’s education are taking a toll. You can chart the discontent on the Mumsnet website, where parents complain in their thousands
He goes on to quote one Kevin Rooney who says “A parent should parent, and a teacher should teach”. And a trained circus act should be manning the hoop-toss.
I agree with Crompton and view with dismay Ed Balls’ introduction of more of this in parent-school agreements. I don’t think parental engagement is a cause of extra achievement, but a sign of its underlying causes being present: wealthy, intelligent and committed parents can do it, and have bright, nice kids (see this figure from Mankiw). Balls is overloading schools with one freaure of the private sector that this particular hassled parent would not wish on anyone.
Then again, at least the dog won something:
*hourly calculations: I expect about £5-8000 to be raised, 50 hardcore parents on the day and before spend at least 10 hours on it, and another 100 spend 5 hours.
** In fact, the method of making money is quite interesting: they sell a rapidly depreciating currency (the raffle-ticket token) for 25p each. It’s a bit like the Brixton £ (see earlier post). The unsuspecting parent, seeing a cornucopia of jamjars, ring-toss dart throwing duck hooking games and suchlike, buys too many of them. The real stuff then gets bought up way too quickly, or if really valuable (a Starbucks or a burger) turns out only to be available for hard cash. In the end you have 20 tokens left, and the choice either to bin them or hog the Guess the Sweets in the jar game, thereby looking a tad obsessive. Too much money, too few goods, no capital movement or convertibility = worthless paper currency and abuse from the authorities.