Saturday 4 July 2009
Deborah Orr: The bright sparks are left behind
The Government has this week launched another bunch of tinkering education reforms. In the main, they suffer from the same problem as every reform of anything that this Government, from now on, will ever announce.
They are an admission of the failure of previous reforms, but not such an admission that any minister ever has to say: "We're changing this because we got it very badly wrong before, and we're sorry."
Particularly egregious is the pledge that all pupils who "fall behind" will have the inalienable right to one-to-one tuition, a pledge that merely concedes that failure to intervene when pupils are floundering badly is endemic. But it says other unpleasant things about our system and its priorities as well.
What do pupils have to "fall behind"? Their own capabilities, or the capabilities of that imaginary average child whose learning ability all children are judged on, for the sake of mass-educational convenience? The comprehensive ideal is that all children are treated equally. But this is far from the case, as can be seen very well as one struggles to see how this tuition wheeze might work.
An engaged and keen-to-please child of fairly average intelligence may never "fall behind" as far as that magic distance that gains her personal tuition – two years. Her positive attitude to education will ensure her an uninterrupted place among what some teachers call "the wallpaper", when a focus on some aspect of her education that she shows greater aptitude at, or love for, perhaps simply that positive attitude and eagerness to please in itself, could transform her whole life. Conversely, a bored and self-reliant child of very high intelligence may have fallen very far indeed behind his own potential, before one-to-one tuition materialises, so far behind that he may already be beyond caring, but not so far behind that he gets tuition. This happens all the time, already, and it is just one of many ways in which the comprehensive system discriminates against the people of the highest intelligence most of all.
That's a sacrifice worth making, according to the most fervent believers in egalitarian, mixed-ability, comprehensive education. Mixed-ability teaching, numerous studies have shown, benefits all children, especially the average, except the brightest, whom it damages. Adherents to John Stuart Mill's creed of utilitarianism, whereby what's best for everybody is what's best for the majority, insist that it is nevertheless the fairest, most moral way.
I contend that if Mill were alive today, he himself would take issue with this application of his simple rule of thumb. Can humankind really benefit more from small purely academic advantages for everybody except the brightest than it can from helping the brightest to achieve their potential – to the cultural and intellectual advantage of society as whole?
Or, to put it another way, why do supporters of comprehensive education get so worked up that relatively few comprehensive educated children make it to elite universities, when the system they support decrees that elite education is not a worthy goal?
A few years back, a study compared the GCSE results of a large cohort of the children who had scored most highly in their English and maths Sats nationwide. It found that the children who went to schools whose intake included many other children of similar achievement to them – whether state or private – did fantastically well, all As and A*s. Those who went to schools attended by few other similarly outstanding pupils had markedly lacklustre results.
The conclusion was that bright children performed at their best within a cohort that included 20 children of similar ability (any more made no difference), and at their worst when they were alone. In May a new study from the London School of Economics came up with similar findings, this time after analysing the results of 550,000 children at the age of 11 and at GCSE.
In response, the report's authors, Dr Philip Noden and Professor Anne West, have called for "a more even spread of pupil intakes into state schools, in terms of ability and disadvantage", although admittedly this is easier to recommend than it is to achieve.
The suggestion, however, leaves both Labour – with its dressing up of tuition as a "right", once a child of any ability has hit rock bottom – and the Tories – with its policy of no tests until children are already in secondary school – high and dry.
The truth is that every school needs its fostered and calibrated academic elite, within a wider culture which understands that these children should be as envied and admired for their prowess as the great footballers or the terrific singers. We already know that our system fails the least bright, who leave barely literate and barely numerate. But we should be equally worried that it considers the most bright as broadly expendable, and the average as the policy benchmark.
One man's fight against drugs
James Palumbo, the millionaire entrepreneur who founded superclub Ministry of Sound, has written a novel, Tomas, and it's said to be very good indeed. Certainly, the publicity is good, with Palumbo revealing his heroic fight to move the drug dealers out of his south London club during the 1990s. Palumbo says that he routinely went to work wearing a bullet-proof jacket, while carrying spray gas and a stun gun, as he pluckily cleansed the Augean stable. Good for him. It must have taken some pluck.
However, his company didn't launch the now defunct clubbing magazine Ministry until 1998, and there were lots of pro-drugs features in that, including one documenting the highs and lows of "drug-fucked sex". The Brixton-based website Urban75 also noted a six-page feature on growing your own cannabis in 1999, and a 10-page drugs special in 2000 featuring vignettes of various "most memorable drug experiences". Bulletproof jackets, spray gas, stun guns, and steely resolve, it appears, are enough to see off a bunch of murderous gangsters, but slightly less equal to the task of routing a small team of dance music journalists.
The power of television
The murder of north London lawyer Tom ap Rhys Pryce three years ago was a tragedy leavened only by the reaction of his friends and relatives. They insisted that they would work in Tom's name to alleviate some of the social conditions that breed violent crime.
They have stuck by their promise, raising funds that go directly to youth projects in the areas. This week, they staged a fundraising quiz. Its theme was The Wire, a television series his friends say Tom would have loved. For those who have not seen The Wire, it may seem odd that a show that features violent crime of just the sort that killed Tom should be considered suitable as a vehicle for raising money in his name. For its fans, however, the choice is apposite, because The Wire is such a moral creation, exploring the social decay that has bred inner-city dehumanisation.
All those involved in the series seem to understand its content and its aims. David Simon and Ed Burns, who created the Baltimore-based series, are a former Baltimore journalist and former Baltimore homicide detective, so clearly they know whereof they speak. They provided some of the questions as well as signed merchandise to be raffled for the London quiz.
But Dominic West, who plays one of the main characters in the series, turned up to place his own imprimatur on the event, showing understanding of how a man bleeding to death thousands of miles away from the city where he played a fictional policeman was as much a part of the story told in The Wire as anyone who appeared on screen. Splendid.
It's often pointed out that tennis players are not representatives of their country, but representatives of themselves, despite the nationalistic fervour that so often surrounds them, especially in Britain during Wimbledon fortnight. It has been said too, sarcastically, that Andy Murray was always Scottish, until he started looking like a real contender, and suddenly got draped in the Union Jack. However, since his sponsor is RBS, we can all feel some pride in our ownership of his success in getting as far as he did. Murray is, after all, basically taxpayer-funded.
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