Not Saussure

May 18, 2007

Boris Johnson on teaching

Filed under: Education, Politics — notsaussure @ 7:42 pm

While my admiration for the greatest living British Conservative normally knows no bounds, I’m rather worried by this:

We need whole-class teaching, and we need to insist that all pupils are taught to read by synthetic phonics, so that we end the disgrace whereby 44 per cent leave primary school either illiterate or innumerate.

If we sort that out, it would be a greater advance for social justice than anything achieved by Labour. We need to re-yuppify the teaching profession, so that first-rate graduates once again think of teaching as a rewarding, holiday-rich alternative to the City or the law.

Let’s take this one bit at a time, and start by imagining Mr Johnson accompanying one of his children on the child’s first day at school. He introduces himself to the Head and to the class teacher and then, before delivering young Borisina to their charge, says,

Oh, but, before leaving you in loco parentis, I must first assure myself that you’re going to teach her to read by the synthetic phonics method. No other method will do.

Well, wouldn’t the teacher be justified in thinking this is a bit odd, even by the standards of the man who gave Petronella Wyatt a job? ‘Well, if you insist, Mr Johnson’, one imagines them saying, ‘But, err, why?’

I don’t want to argue about the advantages or disadvantages of various different methods of teaching children to read, because it’s a subject in which I have no expertise or experience, any more than does Boris Johnson. In fact, I’m not at all sure I’d recognise a synthetic phonic, as opposed, I suppose, to the natural variety, Nor, I think, would Mr Johnson pretend, if you asked him, to have any great expertise in the strengths and weaknesses of various methods of teaching reading to young children, classroom management and so forth.

My late mother, as it happens, did know, from her career, a fair bit about the teaching of reading; her take on the matter always seemed to me pretty sensible. Different methods and reading schemes, she reckoned, all have their strengths and weaknesses and all, in practice, do the job pretty well for most children. What’s important, she always said, is to have a good teacher who, first, actually understands the principles and practice behind the scheme she’s using and, second, has the expertise and insight to spot when an individual child is having difficulties and then both to identify the difficulties and decide on how best to help that particular child overcome those particular problems. This would obviously involve understanding a multitude of different techniques.

With that understood, she reckoned, the best thing was for the teacher to use, as the default method for her particular class, was the method the teacher best understood and felt most comfortable with.

That always seemed to me like basic common sense. Hire professionals who understand the job and then trust them to use their professional expertise.

Which rather neatly, to my mind, leads into Mr Johnston’s second point. I assume, since he must have thought about the matter, that his call to ‘re-yuppify the teaching profession’ cannot mean that he wants to pay teachers what they might expect to earn had, instead of entering teaching, they’d instead gone to work for city trading firms or either City or large West-End law firms. If he does actually mean that, I’m going to worry a bit about what my income and council tax bills will look like under a Conservative government.

If, on the other hand, he means treat we should treat teachers as the skilled professionals they are, then why, for heaven’s sake, does he think they’d appreciate MPs –who know as little, in practice, about teaching as do they about commodities trading or the law of contract (and why should they?) — bouncing up and down spluttering ‘we must insist you do your job — which you’ve trained for and we haven’t , but anyway, we know best — in such and such a way’? Why, in the name of God, does he think this would be a sensible idea. I thought we’d established that the state running — as opposed to funding — things usually ends in disaster.

I’d always associated such behaviour with New Labour. That Boris Johnson, of all people, is emulating it fills me with foreboding.


April 15, 2007

A surprising finding

Filed under: Education, usa — notsaussure @ 12:23 am

From the BBC:

US students attending sexual abstinence classes are no more likely to abstain from sex than those who do not, according to a new study.

Participants in special programmes were just as likely to have sex a few years later as those who did not attend.

In the past few years of Republican Party control of Congress, the spending on no-sex-before-marriage education has risen from $10m to $176m a year […]
The students in this study, which was ordered by Congress, came from a range of big cities across the United States, such as Milwaukee and Miami and from rural communities in Virginia and Mississippi.

They were 11 and 12 years old when they entered the abstinence programmes, which lasted one to two years.

The researchers also looked at the behaviour of their peers from the same communities who did not attend the classes.

The findings show that those who attended first had sex at about the same age as their peers – at 14 years and nine months.


The Bush administration has warned against drawing sweeping conclusions from the study.

Why?  What conclusions could anyone possibly draw from these results?  

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April 12, 2007

Educational Conscription in Action

Filed under: Education — notsaussure @ 10:02 pm

A fine example of educational conscription in action, displaying a considerable degree of both mean-spiritedness and confusion about what the words ‘voluntary’ and ‘compulsory’ mean. The BBC reports that

An A-grade pupil has been banned from her school prom because her parents refused to allow her to attend extra revision lessons.

Kayleigh Baker, 16, has also been thrown off the netball team at Hurworth School, near Darlington, County Durham, as punishment for the decision.

There seems to be a certain amount of confusion about the status of these extra revision classes; according to the report,

A school governor has quit in protest but the school insists the tough line on extra study benefits pupils.It says teachers have the final decision on who attends the classes,

which makes it sound as if these sessions are reserved for those whom the teachers think really need them and who won’t revise unless they’re forced so to do. However, it transpires later on in the article that

The row started last June when the school asked all year 11 parents to sign a form allowing their children to attend the sessions.Kayleigh’s parents, Kay and Ellis, did not sign, saying their daughter was already a high achiever who did not need the burden of extra classes.

The Daily Telegraph explains, (more…)

April 3, 2007

Conscription by another name

Filed under: civil liberties, Education, Politics — notsaussure @ 8:07 pm

People may have noticed the new link in my sidebar:

It leads to a new collective blog, Educational Conscription, started by Fabian Tassano of Mediocracy and the eponymous Surreptitious Evil to protest against Alan Johnson’s plan to force teenagers to stay in education or training until the age of 18, with the aid of sanctions like ‘education Asbos’ and fixed-penalty fines to encourage them.

The question is not whether it’s a good idea for teenagers to stay in education or training; that would, to my mind, depend on the teenager and, while one might well think it’s generally advisable for teenagers to stay in education or learn useful skills, one might also think it’s pretty inadvisable to attempt to force particular teenagers so to do, on pain of criminal penalties, when they don’t want to. Better attempt to herd cats. They might well be sitting there mutinously and they might even pick up some qualifications such as one — this actually exists; my late wife once interviewed a potential officer junior who had one and showed it to her — a certificate in ‘the safe and efficient use of an office stapler’. (more…)

March 23, 2007

Unwillingly to school

Filed under: civil liberties, Education, Politics — notsaussure @ 12:22 am

I can only assume — and pray — that this is more of a gimmick in Alan Johnson’s Deputy Leadership campaign than a serious proposal; the fact it’s a Green Paper, or consultation document, rather than a firm set of proposals. And, whatever happens in the next few months, we can be pretty certain that Mr Johnson won’t be in post to implement his wheeze. But, honestly:

The government wants to introduce “education Asbos” and fixed penalty fines for teenagers who refuse to stay in education or training until the age of 18, the education secretary, Alan Johnson, announced today.

Under Mr Johnson’s proposals,

local authorities would share £476m to be spent on offering guidance and support to young people and creating a register of all 16 to 18-year-olds containing details of their training or education.If a young person “drops out” of the system and refuses to “re-engage” they could lose any financial support they are entitled to.

A teenager who persistently refuses to follow an education or training path would be issued with an attendance order, similar to an antisocial behaviour order, or Asbo, compelling them to attend a specific training or education programme.

If an order is broken, the teenager would face a criminal prosecution that could end in a £50 fine or community sentence.

And, presumably, if he continues to refuse to comply with the attendance order or the terms of his community sentence, or both, there’ll be little option but to send him to a Young Offenders Institution and see what the offender learning and skills people can do with him.

Mr Johnson said the enforcement measures would be directed at a hardcore of offenders who were persistently unwilling to engage in either education or training.He said: ” We need to ensure that we have the right carrots and sticks in place. We plan to ensure that no youngster would be in the criminal arena of the law unless they are really hardcore [offenders] and have gone through a very fulsome process including individual counselling.”

Hardcore of offenders? Christ Almighty, we’re talking about teenagers who, for whatever reason, are unwilling to engage in formal education and training, not the sodding Hell’s Angels! And don’t ask me what he means ‘a very fulsome process including individual counselling;’ I don’t know, other than it sounds creepy, and I’m not sure I want to know.

I’m all in favour of education, and I really don’t think it’s best done in an environment full of unwilling 17-year-olds who are there because it’s marginally preferable to being fined or imprisoned. Far better, if Mr Johnson were also seriously in favour of education, to make it easier for people to return to education, full- or part-time, when they thought it was a good idea so to do, rather than force them to engage in a pointless exercise — doubtless studying for some meaningless certificate of attendance, in the case of the people who’re there under threat of criminal sanctions — at enormous public expense and to the disruption of the education of people who do want to study.

This is typical New Labour. Start with a decent-sounding idea; it’s better for young people to be educated rather than not. Then try to make sure that everyone acts on this idea, whether they want to or not, and enforce it with a panoply of criminal sanctions (to the civil standard of proof, I’ll be bound) and register of the activities of every single 16 to 18-year old in the country. And then, to put the cherry on the cake, also announce you’re

proposing to abolish the current education maintenance allowance (EMA), a payment worth between £10 to £30 a week for 16 to18-year-olds from low income families who agree to stay in education. This is currently claimed by around 400,000 young people.The green paper promises new financial incentives to induce the 200,000 young people it estimates are not in education or work-based training, but the details have yet to be decided.

Why does that last bit not surprise me?

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March 14, 2007


Filed under: Education — notsaussure @ 2:32 am

… is, according to,

A compulsive desire to count objects and to make calculations; such as,
counting paces when walking, steps in a staircase, etc. A common
symptom in obsessive-compulsive disorder.

In his summary, at Blairwatch, of the second part of Adam Curtis’ The Trap, Davide Simonetti notes, as an example of the lunatic extent to which this government has assigned numerical values to everything it can think of,

The Treasury under Gordon Brown started creating a vast mathematical system and started putting numerical values to things people had thought impossible to measure previously – hunger in sub Saharan Africa to be reduced to below 48 percent, world conflict to be reduced by six percent. All towns and villages in Britain were to be measured for a “community vibrancy index”. Even the amount of birdsong there should be in the countryside was quantified.

However, misapplied human ingenuity knows no limits; The Guardian reports:

Babies will be assessed on their gurgling, babbling and toe-playing abilities when they are a few months old under a legally enforced national curriculum for children from birth to five published by the government yesterday.Every nursery, childminder and reception class in Britain will have to monitor children’s progress towards a set of 69 government-set “early learning goals”, recording them against more than 500 development milestones as they go.

At five, each child will be assessed against 13 scales based on the learning goals and their score, called an early years profile, must be passed to the Department for Education and Skills. (more…)

March 10, 2007

Chippiness and privilege

Filed under: Education — notsaussure @ 11:46 am

Recently Chris Dillow took issue with Daniel Finkelstein’s diagnosis of jibes about David Cameron’s university membership of the Bullingdon Club as ‘chippiness’, a discussion carried on by Fabian Tassano in Mediocracy. As I suggested in the comments to Fabian’s article, I’m from vaguely that sort of milieu myself but could never quite see the point of drinking and dining clubs when I was at Cambridge; if I wanted to get drunk and then get up to the stupid sort of things young men do when they’re drunk with their mates, I could do that perfectly well without getting up a club or society under whose auspices to do it.

Anyway, I’d turned such analytical talents as I possessed to the sociology of the University — about 9 men to every 1 woman in those days of single-sex colleges — and concluded that majority of my male fellow-students had simply given up on the girls, feeling outnumbered by the competition, and were consoling themselves with drunken japes in all-male companionship. Meanwhile, the poor girls were finding themselves massively outnumbered by men, most of whom were scared to talk to them, which left them feeling ever-so neglected. In like Flynn, me, since I’ve always thought you can have much more fun with one member of the opposite sex than with several members of the same one, particularly when the latter are only interested in getting someone’s trousers off so they can claim to have ‘de-bagged’ him because that’s what they think undergraduates are supposed to do.

Chris says,

It’s pitiful that such people have had so much money spent on their education and yet have (with a few exceptions) turned into no-marks. Some, I’ve heard, are so imbecilic that they couldn’t even get into Oxford.Even the public schoolboys who have done quite well for themselves have done little better than us. When I worked in the City, I remember talking to an Harrovian colleague and asking: “aren’t you embarrassed that, with all that money spent on your education, you’ve ended up working next to me?”

Part of the answer, of course, is that many of the public schools certainly don’t select purely on academic grounds; mine, one of the brainer ones, certainly didn’t; indeed, Francis Wheen has been known to joke on The News Quiz, neither did his.   He attended a comprehensive (Harrow), he reckons since obviously no school attended by his class-mate, Mark Thatcher, can claim to select purely on brains.    One suspects Chris Dillow should have asked  what his colleague might have been doing had he not had all the extra help that a bright chap like Chris clearly didn’t need.

The question, I suppose, is how do people feel about ‘buying an unfair advantage’ for their children (as opposed, of course, to others buying an unfair advantage for their children, which is clearly wrong). I have in mind the daughter of a chap for whom my wife used to work. The girl was apparently a handful, to say the least; ‘challenging’ is, I believe, the preferred phrase. Her parents were in the fortunate position to be able to send her to a school that specialised in keeping such girls from getting up to too much havoc during their teenage years, with the result that young Georgie managed to scrape a few GCSEs and an undistinguished A level before emerging, with not inconsiderable charm and poise, to work for a few years in some minor capacity in a PR company belonging to one of daddy’s friends before, eventually, getting married to some amiable chap from a not dissimilar background.

Had the lass attended, if not the local comp (dunno what the local comp in Knightsbridge is like), at least some local comps, her life would doubtless have taken a rather different turn and she’d quite possibly have been one of these young single mothers who live off benefits, having collected an ASBO or two, or at least until either Tony Blair’s exhortations or David Cameron’s tax incentives encourage them to mend their ways.

Unfair, certainly, but what’s wrong — perzactly — with her parents spending a not inconsiderable amount of money on trying to make sure turned out rather more responsible than otherwise she might have done, didn’t make a nuisance of herself — at least to the general public — while she was growing up, and didn’t cost the taxpayers a penny? I know it’s not fair that others didn’t have her advantages, but, as my late wife used to say during her last illness, she’d looked at the back of her birth certificate, and it didn’t say anything about how things have to be fair.

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February 28, 2007

Education lotteries

Filed under: Education, Politics — notsaussure @ 11:13 pm

I wonder what to make of the news that

Brighton and Hove City council announced that schools under its authority will in some cases pick pupils randomly from within a catchment area, rather than giving preference to those living closest.

Should commend itself to people, I’d have thought, since I can’t think of a better way of guaranteeing equality of opportunity — of which I thought we were all supposed to be in favour — than giving everyone an equal chance in a raffle. A lot of people don’t quite seem to see it that way, though. Curiously, though, apparently

Brighton has argued they will have more people going to their nearest school, about 70% compared with the current figure of 40%. At the moment in theory parents can apply anywhere in Brighton and travel, so long as they can afford to.In future they will only go into the ballot in their catchment postcode area.


February 22, 2007

Another Downing Street Petition

Filed under: Books, Education — notsaussure @ 10:56 pm

Don’t know if it’ll do any good, but I’ve been asked to publicise this.

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to keep the British Library FREE of charge to users! Don’t cut its budget!. More details.

Submitted by Joanna Bryant – Deadline to sign up by: 07 June 2007 – Signatures: 10,620 (as of 22/2)

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January 28, 2007

History lessons?

Filed under: Education, England, history — notsaussure @ 5:09 pm

An interesting article (what else do we expect?) over at Westminster Wisdom, in which Gracchus considers concerns expressed by Matthew Sinclair over the government’s plans

to teach more British history to help pupils have a better understanding of their own identity and Britain’s religious, racial, social and political diversity.

Matthew Sinclair is concerned by the topics on which the proposed history syllabus is to concentrate; according to the Guardian,

Lessons on the Commonwealth and empire, the slave trade and conflicts such as those in Northern Ireland are to be made a keystone of revamped citizenship education. Other issues such as migration will be made central to the curriculum. Pupils will be expected to learn core “British” values such as tolerance, respect, freedom of speech and justice and learn of “the shared British heritage”. There will also be a drive to ensure that white working class pupils do not feel alienated by attention being paid to ethnic minority pupils.

Of this, he comments,

Combine a focus upon periods of ethnic strife with the perspective that these problems are caused by white, Anglo-Saxon, evil and you have a recipe for lessons about how we should accept immigrants because of how awfully we mistreated their ancestors. Instead of trying to teach British national identity they’re trying the old strategy of trying to guilt the white British population into playing nice; this is not a novel strategy and doesn’t have the most impressive record of success.

Gracchus disagrees; he argues that

one of the points about history is to understand that our society has been shaped by people who had very different attitudes to the world than we of the points about history is to understand that our society has been shaped by people who had very different attitudes to the world than we do

and, speaking particularly of one particularly important, complex, controversial and influential Englishman, Oliver Cromwell, (more…)

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