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The rocky road to a PhD

I read your article ("Economists fall for the lure of the lucre," EDUCATION, 17 June) concerning the plight of academic economists in the UK with some interest as I am one of the six PhD students to embark on an economics PhD in the last year, with a first, at one of the leading universities. I would suggest that, while it is surely the case that the stream of future income is important in making such choices, there are many other obstacles standing in the way of choosing "academia" - and among the more important is the ridiculous process you have to go through to enrol on a PhD course.

I started to work on my research proposal in September 1997, and submitted it to Oxford, London Business School (LBS), Essex and Sussex by the middle of January 1998. I was turned down by LBS in March; was accepted by Essex and Oxford in March. and received a letter from Sussex in June asking for more detail on my proposal.

So in March I turned to funding - despite contact and progress with a potential supervisor at Oxford, the college did not inform me of my acceptance until after the deadline for ESRC [Economic and Social Research Council] funding - the college was unable to offer a studentship.

At Essex they could guarantee me only pounds 1,400, but did apply to the ESRC with me. Thus by May I was reliant on an ESRC scholarship which I didn't hear about until September - just a fortnight prior to my supposed start at Essex. Thus, I had a year of uncertainty and worry, and could not possibly have pursued this while doing a masters - the implication being that you actually need a "year off" in order to pursue this process.

I also happen to know one of the "other six" at Bristol who actually turned down a Nuffield scholarship, and had a year off, in order to undertake this arduous application process. Thus 33.3% (at least) of the PhD economics students enrolling last year had to undertake a year-long application process to secure pounds 6,400 - as well as turn away from the rewards of the private sector.

Is it really a surprise that so few people make this choice?

CHRISTOPHER GERRY

Department of Economics

University of Essex

Home is where the education is

Mary Spencer ("Your Views", EDUCATION, 17 June) seems a little confused about home education. We do not do it because it will make our children more successful, we do it because true learning and intellectual growth can only come with supporting and encouraging children in their own interests, not dictating and controlling from outside.

She is so well "schooled" that she cannot imagine learning without fixed timetables, school hours and formal lessons. Has she never learned anything for the pure pleasure of it?

Probably not if she went through this country's formal schooling system, whose main aim it sometimes seems is the stifling of all intellectual curiosity. If you are forever told what to learn, when to do it and for exactly how long, with no consideration for your own personal interests, I can imagine you would come to the conclusion that it was mostly not worth doing.

How sure is she really that her children "attend with enthusiasm": has she ever genuinely offered them the alternative? It is in reality not open to the vast majority of children in this country, who have to put up and shut up, smile sweetly and get their freedom when and where they can.

How many adults can look back on their school days and feel they were well spent and prepared them well for adult life?

Not many if truth were known.

MARTINE ARCHER

Harrogate, North Yorkshire

When we moved abroad we decided to educate our boys at home for a few months while we settled in.

Our children started to blossom when given the freedom to learn in their own way, at their own pace. They were able to take up outside activities to compensate for what they missed about school but quickly realised that, for academic subjects, learning at home was much more efficient than school.

So we have continued, and the children are thriving. Of course we have bad days, and I have times of self-doubt. Sometimes none of us feels like doing anything, and sometimes I am at a loss to explain something, or we all become grumpy. But this happens at school. At least we have the freedom to abandon work for a morning and do something else.

Will it be successful? I don't know. How does one measure "success" anyway? I hope my children will have the confidence that they can follow whatever career they choose, knowing that they are capable of learning what they need to learn.

Unless David Blunkett realises that children learn better with greater freedom, there are going to be an ever-increasing number of families who are dissatisfied with school and who opt out.

SUSAN FAIRHEAD

Larnaca, Cyprus

Mary Spencer complains that she can only find overwhelmingly positive reports of home education. Perhaps the reason that she can only find positive reports is that the overwhelming experience of home education is positive.

I belong to an e-mail support group and people do mention negative experiences there. However, even on bad days, most people seem to find that home education is better than school.

I am one of those parents who does not "adopt the national curriculum, have a fixed timetable, observe school hours, or give formal lessons".

If Mary Spencer is really interested in how it works, I am happy to discuss it further.

SHENA M DEUCHARS

Mitcham, Surrey

A-level in `round objects'?

Judith Judd made some interesting points about fairness in examinations in her article ("Marks and sparks", EDUCATION, 17 June.)

Is it possible to devise a system of examination that is fair to everyone? I doubt it.

Perhaps it is better that society appreciates what examination success tells you about a person - i.e., they are probably reasonably well motivated, can work and problem-solve under pressure, are reasonably well organised and can remember enough information to give correct answers to factual questions without the need to constantly refer to a book.

Failure at exams says nothing about the person concerned. That individual may pass exams at another time or go on to succeed at something else in their life. The argument about falling standards is fallacious, and time and energy would be better spent trying to devise alternative ways of accreditation.

GNVQs and records of achievement are a step in that direction.

Human beings are not any more or less intelligent today than they were yesterday or are going to be tomorrow.

What are the really big ideas? The microchip and the computer? The internal combustion engine. Generation and harnessing of electrical power? Essential to modern life maybe, but who learnt to control and use fire, who invented the wheel? People, the human race, us. You can bet that the people responsible for those crucial ideas didn't pass a GCSE in "Control of hot, bright flame thing" or an A-level in "Uses of round objects".

K RODGERS

Port Isaac, Cornwall

Please send your letters to Wendy Berliner, Editor, EDUCATION, The Independent, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL. Please include a day- time telephone number.

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