Tag Archives: schools

More on faith schools

Following my piece on Sunday, I’ve written another article on faith schools over on Comment is Free:

It is a shame that the supporters of faith schools lack the faith that their ethos could survive a few children of atheists running around the playground. Ultimately, society as a whole is the weaker for indulging their insecurity.

Nick Clegg: It’s beat up an activist day!

Oh dear, oh dear, and he was doing so well:

Nick Clegg will unveil plans to end state interference in schools this week as he moves to bury the Liberal Democrats’ traditional approach to public services.

In his first keynote speech since becoming party leader, Clegg will challenge many of the party’s supporters in teaching and local government by issuing proposals which will “effectively take schools out of state control”, according to one official.

David Laws, the Lib Dems’ schools spokesman, paved the way for changes to the party’s approach at its annual conference in September, pledging to inject more choice into the system by making it easier for parents and community groups to set up new schools. The plans won the backing of the conference, although some activists and MPs are uneasy about the approach – which chimes with many of the policies proposed by the Conservatives.

I’m not opposed to “effectively” (weasel word) taking “schools out of state control”. Indeed, it’s just possibly I might actually be happy going further than what Clegg has to say on Saturday; he’s certainly already ruled out school vouchers, something I have in the past said I’m open minded about. Indeed, the party is totally up for taking schools out of state control, if by state you mean central government; always has been. The devil however is always in the detail.

What annoys me is that we’re back to activist-bashing again, and less than a month into Clegg’s leadership. It’s an old leadership tactic: make yourself look bold and radical by portraying your own party as awkward and out of touch. The worst thing is, it is with reference to a policy that has already been passed by party conference.

Do I have to remind Team Clegg of these results? Clearly I do:

  • Nick Clegg: 20,988
  • Chris Huhne: 20,477

Nick Clegg had a chance to spell out his vision for public service reform during his leadership election campaign; he bottled it. By all accounts he should have won an easy victory; he failed. If he wants to make the case now, that’s fine, but he doesn’t have a mandate and the price he has to pay for only just failing to pluck disaster from the jaws of victory is that he has to treat the intelligence of the party membership with a modicum of respect. Spinning before making a major policy speech that we aren’t going to like what he’s going to say is pathetic, counter-productive and yaaaawn! so like his predecessors.

Spinning that he plans to copy the Conservatives is equally foolish; apart from making it sound like he will utter little more than a “me too!” this is the party of the National Curriculum and standardised national testing we’re talking about, remember?

Wedge strategy or salami slicing? Two equally valid theories

Creationism is to be discussed as part of the GCSE biology syllabus:

The [OCR] exam board says students need to understand the background to theories.

Its new “Gateway to Science” curriculum asks pupils to examine how organisms become fossilised.

Teachers are asked to “explain that the fossil record has been interpreted differently over time (e.g. creationist interpretation)”.

Sounds innocent enough. Except that creationism as it is currently understood is very much a modern phenomenon. The Biblical creation myth was a hodge-podge of different creation myths borrowed from other cultures. There was no “creationist interpretation” before Darwinism, there was just the Bible and a lack of any other satisfying explanation. A series of theories, not least of all Lamarckism were explored, before the scientific community settled on Darwinism. Creationism is a reaction to Darwinism and the enlightenment, a modern literal interpretation of a clearly allegorical myth. Its place in a lesson on “interpretations of the fossil record” merits a paragraph or two, sure, but such a lesson would only have validity if it mainly focussed on the various attempts at formulating a scientific theory.

I’d dearly like to know who in OCR came up with that guff, as it has all the hallmarks of the wedge strategy, the well documented plan by US evangelists to subtly undermine the enlightenment by dressing up dogma as quasi-scientific scepticism. Intelligent Design is of course a famous example of this strategy.

I didn’t catch all of Rod Liddle’s Dispatches programme on Monday, but what I saw was disturbing enough. The picture that Liddle painted was that of teachers selected for their faith rather than ability, a subtle but no-less-comprehensive attempt to infect science teaching with religious dogma without falling foul of Ofsted and a selective use of exclusion to remove “troublesome” pupils. As time goes on, I have no doubt their confidence will grow. Meanwhile, another evangelist is planning to use his money to create a chain of McAcademies, and despite being a Tory donor, Blair has rewarded him with a peerage (if he can passed the Appointments Commission). Overseeing the entire schools revolution, of which these are just a small part, is a woman who has well known sympathies to the Opus Dei cult.

This is a full scale onslaught on scientific reason, salami slice by salami slice – make no mistake. It has its links with the religious hatred laws and the moral authoritarianism of the Respect Agenda. All this is being presented to us in perfectly reasonable terms: it’s about choice, or respecting communities, or tackling anti-social behaviour. The risk of creating sectarian tensions and a hysterical culture of intolerance is glossed over.

What to do about it? Where do we begin? But we can make a start at least by talking about it.

Freedom, New Labour Style

Okay, so first the government run around shouting about how their new plans will make all state schools independent and self-government. But then they introduce a one-size-fits-all system for teaching literacy? If it’s so good, then why not let the schools – and parents – decide for themselves?

Could you have a better example of Labour’s schizophrenic attitude towards decentralisation?

Oh, actually you can. All you need to look at is the consultation exercise that the party has prepared for its backbenchers to follow in their constituencies, complete with pre-written press release about how local parents are falling over themselves to support the proposals.

(Tip of the hat: Labour Watch, Tim Worstall, Jonathan Calder).


This is the sort of thing that annoys me about BBC journalism:

According to the Lib Dems, 42% of schoolchildren who took part in a mock general election organised by the Hansard Society in 2,000 schools this year voted for the party.

Actually, it isn’t according to the Lib Dems, it’s according to the Hansard Society. The BBC can’t even state the facts without some weird post-modernist nonsense getting slotted in. Is it too much to expect journalists simply to state the facts without editorialising everything?

Pant Watch: the Grand Coalition

Welcome to Pant Watch. Pant Watch exists to chronicle the dying days of the Blair administration. Technically, we are now at P-8, P-1 being the day that Steve Bell published this cartoon showing Blair wearing John Major’s pants of power. To be sure, Bell has portrayed Blair as a pant-wearer before, most memorably here, but it would appear that Blair has now acquired something unmistakeably Major-like in his impotence in administration now, as if we have reached, if not the end of the Blair administration, then at least the beginning of the end.

(for more on this by Steve himself, see here)

It would appear however that both the Tory contenders look at Blair’s pants with envious eyes. I mention the Tories here, not simply to make a gratuitous link to that ridiculous story, but because I think a lot of the commentariat has missed a point here.

The story goes that Blair has lost all authority and that his attempts to push through his reforms on health, education and welfare will all be for nothing, that he won’t be able to squeeze a single thing through. Those commentators appear to be missing one very important ingredient; pretty much everything Blair wants to do to health, education and welfare is broadly along the same lines that the Tories want to do as well. Indeed, Cameron has repeatedly emphasised that on a number of issues in the past, the Tories were wrong to oppose Blair.

Cameron is onto a real thing here and even if he doesn’t win the leadership ballot, it may well be that elements of his nascent strategy emerged under Davis anyway. Tactically, the best thing the Tories can do right now is work with Blair on these reforms, partly because it means they get broadly what they want despite not having the prerequisite bums on seats, and partly because it is likely to provoke an unholy civil war within the Labour Party.

How long will it be before Blair wins a vote on a ‘legacy’ issue, with the Tories bolstering him in the face of a major Labour rebellion? It didn’t happen in the case of the terrorism vote, and civil liberties in general, mainly because it wouldn’t wash with the idea of modern conservativism, whichever flavour you choose. Public services are a different matter.

What we could be looking at here is the beginning of an informal Grand Coalition, which has the potential to develop into a more formal arrangement after the next General Election. It would inevitably be more problematic for Labour than the Tories, but it would also be in Labour’s interests, or at least the Blairite-reformist wing that forms the majority of MPs. It is surely only a matter of time before they realise that a marriage with a rebranded, modern Conservative Party is preferable to one with Old Labour. Meanwhile, any Tory who can count – and I understand there are a few – is all too aware that however well they do over the next few years, they can’t form a majority in the Commons (pdf). Their future will either be spent in the wilderness or in coalition, and it is unlikely that the ‘natural party of government’ will choose the wilderness.

Many Labour supporters will snort in derision at this, but this is the precisely the corner that Tony Blair has got them in. This is the danger of triangulation, especially when the people at the top end up believing it. Abandon ‘modernisation’ and you open up ground for the Tories to capture. Stick with it and you will have to rely on the Tories to get everything through.

So even if the current wearer of the pants shuffles off, it may be that his successor finds them freshly pressed on his bed when he enters Number 10 for the first time.

Meanwhile, whoever the Tories choose for leader may find he has the real power in the country. Even David Davis.

Think about that one.

Loading the dice

Over at the Apollo Project, Peter links to an interesting article about selection in secondary education, and its inherent randomness.

It isn’t clear in the article, but the local authority it refers to could well be Bromley, where I grew up and attended the Grammar.

Either way, it certainly reflects my experience, where it did indeed appear fairly random who got selected and who didn’t. What’s more, plenty of people I went to school with had extra private tutoring to get them through the 11-plus (I didn’t), which was why it was disproportionately posh.

Resources will always be limited, and I don’t oppose choice in principle, so I’m not opposed to randomness in allocating people places. But just as catchment areas give rich people who can afford to move an advantage, selection rewards those who can afford extra support. If we’re going to have randomness, the least unfair way of managing it would be an actual lottery. Misty eyed nostalgia about the wonders of Grammars doesn’t get us anywhere.

Schools and markets again

I’m pleased and flattered to have my last post on this subject listed in Apollo’s October Top Ten – thanks. Meanwhile, I’ve been jousting with Bishop Hill in the comments section of my last post. He’s been giving me a run for my money, although I’m not at all convinced. We’re coming from two distinct positions: ultimately, he contends that the education of children is the business of parents and parents alone, while I regard it as a public good (while not disregarding the fact that generally parents – and children – are the best judge of what’s right for them). I don’t think he’s thought that one through (if he’s right, we should just save the government a bundle of money and stop public funding for education altogether).

Mary Reid cites an interesting local example of the problems of the government’s proposals.

I suppose my concerns with the government’s proposals, and of markets in education in general, can be summed up this way: the government want to see a market in education, regulated and tempered by national government. I would like to see a market in education, regulated and tempered by local government. And that local government needs to be genuine government, not simply administration, in other words:

  • political autonomy;
  • financial autonomy;
  • genuinely representative via a fair voting system.

I just don’t see how national government can respond effectively and the article Mary refers to above offers an excellent example.

Education needs vary widely from place to place. For many rural areas, choice is limited by the sparse population and locality is at a premium that it isn’t in urban areas. It is dangerous in the extreme to impose a single one-size-fits-all solution.

Perfect markets versus reality

Jonathan Calder has been discussing the government’s new education proposals and I have adding a few helpful comments, leading to this series of questions from Bishop Hill. This has made me realise I’m in danger of being misunderstood, but I thought I’d clarify what my position is here rather than there.

First of all, I think it is important to say that I’m not anti “choice” and I’m certainly not anti markets per se, indeed one of my main interests is how markets can help us achieve environmental goals in a way that simply regulating and imposing sin taxes never could. However, I’m concerned that when we talk about choice in relation to public services we are talking about real choice, rather than simply having a range of relatively neutral options. Roger Levett in “A Better Choice of Choice” (I’m sure Jonathan won’t approve of me linking to a Fabian pamphlet!) talks about “choice sets” whereby we should be enabling people to make full choices about their lives rather than make narrow decisions which close off other choices later on.

I also think that discussions about markets are essentially meaningless unless you also discuss externalities at the same time, and remain fully cogniscent of the fact that the perfect market is a myth. People who don’t I believe are open to the accusation that they are market fundamentalists, eulogising about an ideal that only has a tangential relation to reality.

So I get very uneasy when I read Jonathan writing this:

But would any schools want to grow to this enormous size? Would any parents want to send their children to them if they did? Mark’s case seems to be that governing bodies and parents are both criminally stupid and need local education authorities to save them from themselves.

This is an obtuse caricature. There are numerous examples of cases where a series of perfectly rational choices lead to fundamentally undesirable outcomes. Take bus services for instance. If significantly larger numbers of people used buses, services would be cheaper and more reliable. Unfortunately, what has happened since deregulation is that bus services have got worse, leading to more people making the perfectly rational choice to switch to using the car, leading to worse congestion and less money going into the bus service. This in turn leads to more people using their cars, and everyone suffering from worse congestion and worse pollution.

In Jonathan’s comments I included the example of local shops and post offices, to which Bishop Hill retorted: If everyone agrees that local shops are better why does everyone shop at supermarkets?

Yet this has been well documented. It doesn’t take a mass switch from local shops to supermarkets, just a critical mass which renders local shops unprofitable. This has been well documented by the New Economics Foundation’s series of reports on the emergence of “Ghost Town Britain” – a loss of just 10-20% of trade after the arrival of an out of town supermarket is enough to start shutting shops, despite the vast majority of local people actively supporting them.

Bringing all this back to education, and my quote from Jonathan above, it isn’t simply a case of governing boards deciding the perfect size of the school for them; there will always be pressure to expand. From a purely economic point of view, smaller schools are less cost-efficient than larger schools. It will be a brave governing board that chooses to remain small ahead of books and equipment. And, to use the word du jour of our Great Leader, any such school expansion will be “irreversible” – once you’ve built a new wing to accomodate 200 extra students you can hardly go back to a smaller size later.

Bishop Hill asks: Don’t you think that parents should make the decisions about how their children are educated? The children are not public property after all.

I am working on the assumption that children are the responsibility of wider society as well as parents. I’m sorry if that is an outrageously leftist notion but if it isn’t the case, then there is absolutely no case whatsoever for the state funding of education.

Should parents be able to make decisions about how their children are educated? Yes, but there are limits. It is not in societies interests to have children being indoctrinated into a cult or otherwise be kept ignorant of basic truths about the society they will have to live in for the rest of their lives. There is a liberal argument for and against disallowing children to be taught in such a way, but I trust there is very little question among liberals about whether wider society should pay, or even subsidise it.

There is also the question about whether parents are equipped, in a messy world without the market ideal of perfect knowledge, to make proper choices.

Vince Cable has recently written a Centre for Reform pamphlet entitled Public Services: Reform with a purpose. In it, he adapts a typology by Nicholas Barr to assess the suitability of public services for use of markets. This typology has five criteria:

  1. information easy to get or easy to improve access to;
  2. information easy to understand;
  3. low cost of bad choices;
  4. diversity of tastes;
  5. low transaction costs.

Vince concludes that in the case of schools, 3 and 5 are certainly not the case while the degree to which information is easy to get and understand is questionable.

You will pardon me about remaining sceptical (using the precise definition of the word) about the marketisation of education if one of the so-called arch-marketeers in the Lib Dems shares my scepticism. But what is to be done? Well, Theo Butt-Philip hits the nail on the head: it isn’t for national government to be dictating a line from above, but for local government to be given the room to experiment. Surely no Liberal Democrat would argue against that?

But I accept that that is a bit of a cop-out. My honest answer is that I don’t know. What I suspect however is that the solution lies matching local accountability with a system that allows schools to innovate and allows the maximum amount of choice for parents and children while recognising that places will always be limited to some extent. I am certainly sold on the idea of school selection by lot as the least unfair way of managing demand. I also see the answer lying in lots of small schools with strong identities rather than vast sausage-factory like impersonal institutions. I just don’t believe the market, completely unaided, will be able to do this without a democratic infrastructure to nurture it.

A final point to end on though, and I should preface this by emphasising that I really do have a lot of time for Jonathan Calder’s views – he’s listed in my ‘top blogs’ with very good reason and I seem to agree with him on most things. But I do find it a little hard to take being told that any scepticism about marketising education is dreadfully reactionary while simultaneously being told that the market has no place in dictating broadcasting rights to major sporting events. If the market can’t get that right, why on earth would we want to unleash it on our children?