Category Archives: education

Lies, damn lies, and misinformation

What do you do if you’re the powers-that-be, you’ve bungled something badly, and you judge that trying to lie your way out of it will only make things worse?

Why of course, you muddy the waters: cast doubt on everything the public know about it.  That way you don’t have to tell any porkies, you just let your natural supporters infer it for themselves and argue the case for you.  Turn the whole subject into an argument noone can win in the court of public opinion – at least, not until you (or your successor) can say that things are different now.

Hence the abrupt change in England’s covid death count.  It serves to highlight the (true) fact that all statistical measures of that have problems – there are obvious issues with both the old and the new measures – and hence cast doubt on covid statistics in general.  Including the (also true) fact that the UK in general, and England in particular, has an exceptionally poor track record compared to our peers.  The most reliable measure – overall deaths in excess of average, encompassing both the disease itself and ill-considered responses to it – shows our track record as (to date) the worst of anywhere.  Turns out even Belgium’s higher headline count was no more than an artifact of different counting methodology.

But now we have doubt, and scope for argument, not just over the genuine shortcomings of our data, but equally over clear and stark facts.  And of course, people have a natural suspicion of statistics to reinforce the doubt.

Talking of which, I should clarify my prediction.  My end-of-August timescale was for death count, being much more reliable than case count, but which is of course a trailing statistic and subject to the artifacts we’ve seen highlighted by the change in methodology.

And on another troubling story in the news ….

The bizarre (and rather tragic) story of how our powers-that-be have awarded results to young people in A-level and other exams is surely a travesty on every level.   The statistical exercise used went to elaborate lengths to be more-or-less fair to schools (though even that is in some doubt), but is unquestionably monstrously unfair to individual students!  Those responsible – everywhere that’s done this – should be unceremoniously fired.

It’s been many years since I sat any such exams (and I expect I’d have got the same results either way) but I’d still have been mightily p***ed off to be lumped with such meaningless results[1]!  For those who have lost a university (or other) place they believe (rightly or wrongly) they deserve, and will now either lose a year of their young lives or go through life labelled as mediocre, it seems to me about as devastating as a wrongful criminal conviction!  My suggested solution: give every candidate an A-level, but ungraded.  All the legitimate inputs to an assessed grade – such as GCSE and mock exam results – are there to be assessed by whomsoever it may concern.

[1] To be honest, I was mightily p***ed off when I learned that top grades were devalued by being awarded for marks so low as to be utterly unthinkable!  Then as now, A-levels were hopelessly inadequate to distinguish the sheep from the goats.

Kids today!

As the days lengthen and the weather seems to be reverting to something more normal after the ultra-wet months and previous semi-drought, I’ve seen something rather encouraging on a couple of occasions.  Bunches of very small but keen kiddies being taught map and navigational skills.

This is not a one-off: I’ve seen different adults focusing on different aspects of navigation with their respective pupils.  On one occasion at the top of the hill, a man getting his charges to figure out from the map whether they had a line-of-sight to a landmark, and identify it in the distance.  On another occasion a woman encouraging her charges to use the maps to navigate somewhere in town.  Both these leaders were doing a great job of making it interesting.

Both groups of kids are far too young to be on a national curriculum, but were doing similar things at the same time of year.  I wonder if this is some particularly inspired primary school, or whether this is more widespread?  Either way, what a splendid bit of education for them.

On another seasonal note, we have the first foraging of the year as the wild garlic is nicely in season: picked and ate my first this week.  On the other hand, nettles are either unusually late or disappointing this year: they should now be plentiful but young and tender, but I have yet to collect any.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

Today’s news: London Metropolitan University loses its license to sponsor foreign students to enter the country.  It seems they’ve been found guilty of substantial abuse of the system, with the implication that they’re taking money from bogus students whose real purpose is immigration.

Whereas London has several well-respected establishments ranging from regular universities to specialist academies, London Metropolitan University isn’t one of them.  I find it entirely plausible that they’re abusing the system, have ignored warnings (even thought they were calling the government’s bluff), and have failed to put their house in order.  It’s also perfectly plausible that it’s a border agency cockup, or elements of both, but for the purposes of this post we’ll discount that possibility.

In view of protests about this coming from academia and elsewhere, perhaps it needs someone to say that this is exactly the right action to take.  The country is far too overcrowded to take unlimited immigration, and the government has to set and police rules to limit it.  But higher education is a highly successful export, and it would be wrong for government to choke it with excessive red tape.  Universities should be free (indeed, encouraged) to recruit genuine students from around the world without onerous restrictions such as quotas.  That means it must be up to each university to take responsibility for the student visas it sponsors.  For the government to police immigration policy without heavy meddling implies it must have the ultimate sanction of withdrawing a license, and it must be prepared to use it.

With a bit of luck, this serves two purposes.  It stops one offender, and fires a warning shot in the direction of anyone else who might be tempted to abuse the system.

The downside to it is collateral damage.  First, the direct effect on genuine foreign students: I hope all innocent victims will be provided for and can get the degree they deserve with minimal disruption!  Second, the effect on other universities, if it causes a loss of confidence amongst foreign prospective applicants.  I suspect the latter may be the biggest worry for many, but it should be alleviated if appropriate arrangements can be made for all existing students.  Except of course, bogus students who are flushed out might seek to spin stories of persecution, and it seems likely some of them might get the ear of the media.

Celebrating the Elite

Elitism is a dirty word in the UK today.  Well, at least borderline, though far from universally agreed.  It is fashionable amongst our politically-correct chattering classes to sneer at anything associated with an ‘elite’ – real or imagined.  Fortunately the fanatical extremes of Mao’s China or the world’s theocracies have never prevailed here, but there are certainly people here who’ll think the worse of you for having been to an Ivy League university (you’re privileged, that’s unfair), or for preferring good music to whatever happens to be in “the charts” (you’re a snob).

Now we’ve just held a huge orgy of the ultra-elite, yet somehow that’s OK: most of those same chattering classes are celebrating it.  Dissidents who decline to celebrate may have their own bandwagons (the hype, the barefaced fraud over costs, the disruption to life), but the event’s inherent elitism isn’t one of them.  Somehow, physical prowess and sporting excellence are OK where intellectual prowess and academic excellence are deeply suspect.

Something for everyone: the true spirit of mass participation.

That is, until now.  It seems some killjoy has done a bit of digging, and found that the olympics are elitist after all.  Not for the obvious reasons, but because too many of our successful athletes come from privileged backgrounds.  Worst of all, they went to fee-paying private schools.  It seems olympic success, just like academic success, can be bought by parents for their offspring.  Whoops!

A moment’s thought should tell you that’s blindingly obvious: parents who pay high fees in preference to a free alternative expect something for it, and they’re not entirely mistaken.  Indeed, barriers to entry to many elite sports are inherently much higher than to elite universities: you don’t aspire to something unless you have at least the facilities to practice it!  Among my own cohort, elite universities were an aspiration for some, elite football for others, but olympic sports such as swimming/watersports, anything equestrian, or winter sports were simply unthinkable: they’re not for the likes of us!

Anyway, now that the Olympics are officially elitist, will we start sneering at them as a bastion of privilege, too?  I don’t think that’s likely, but it does look like a riposte for when the forces of Political Correctness want to interfere with our top universities on the grounds that they select on academic criteria.

More interesting would be if it can provoke a debate that’ll eventually highlight the total absurdity of an education policy that allows schools to select pupils (commonly at age 11) on a wide range of different criteria such as sporting or artistic prowess (along with some that are altogether more dubious), but at the same time explicitly forbids selection on academic merit!

Selling a soul

With the news in of Lord Sainsbury’s election as chancellor of my Alma Mater, the phrase Faustian Pact sprung to mind. But only fleetingly: Faust sold his soul not for gold but for (according to variants of the legend) knowledge, experience,  youth, and a bit of totty. Sainsbury is unambiguous: £127 million so far to the University (Wikipedia), and many eyes doubtless focussed whence that came.

The Chancellor is a purely ceremonial role, with the chief executive post being that of Vice Chancellor.  So it is, one might reasonably argue, well-suited to a man born to the highest privilege with the effortless self-assurance that brings, and accustomed to habitual ceremony.   Sainsbury’s predecessor (who was Chancellor in my time there) was the very embodiment of that role: he is of course married to the Queen.  But whereas the Duke of Edinburgh was a neutral/inoffensive choice for the post, Sainsbury is anything but neutral.  He is famous for having bankrolled the most blatantly corrupt UK government in modern history, which awarded him a peerage and a post as Science Minister.  Before that, his chairmanship of Sainsbury’s supermarkets saw its decline from our undisputed biggest and most successful grocer to a shrinking third place.

Call me a sentimental old fool, but I still care enough about the old place to find this mildly upsetting.

What was, in a sense, more interesting about this event is that it was a contested election.  The story is that a local grocer popular among some university folks was first nominated to stand against Sainsbury: I can only presume that his supporters feel as I do about ones soul.  I know nothing about Abdul Arain, though the quotes from him that have appeared in the national press sound like a splendid fellow!  His left-field candidacy drew in two other high-profile candidates, both of them well-qualified for a top ceremonial role by virtue of their careers in public performance: Brian Blessed as a splendid actor, and Michael Mansfield as a top QC.  If Arain was no more than a stalking-horse then Blessed was surely the most acceptable candidate.

Education for whom?

Our higher education establishment is in a mess.

Not, I should add, for the first time.  Nor, I should imagine, the last. Nor is it all bad: indeed, quite apart from our handful of world-leading establishments, there’s evidence to suggest it’s a big success in some important ways.

Today’s news: university places filling faster than ever.  Apparently it’s not just the usual story of a few illiterate no-hopers missing out, but a surge of demand to get in ahead of the forthcoming new fee structures.  Seems this year’s 18-year-olds are missing out on that gap year, and who can blame them?

This is the inevitable outcome of a historic process of expansion that, under political pressure, went too far and too fast in pushing young people into higher education.  It’s roots can be traced back at least to the 1960s, but it’s gone a long way since then with the 1992 name inflation and the last government’s social engineering agenda.  And now the prohibitive costs likely to exclude all but a privileged[1] minority.

At the same time, there seem to be straws in the wind about the possibility of a backdoor return to something closer to sanity.  Universities are to be incentivised to take students with decent A-level grades (AAB or better), and it is thought likely they’ll compete to attract such students by offering favourable deals.  Sounds to me like an element of de facto selection on merit – something that’s explicitly banned in areas of the education system influenced by the more Maoist elements of political correctness.

Could we be heading for something closer to the Good Old Days, where grants were available to students who met basic academic standards?  If so, that sounds like potentially a rather good outcome.  Now if only they could formalise it in a way that’s clear and transparent to prospective applicants, maybe we could have something fit-for-purpose for our youth!

Now, with the announcement that the Open University is to join the high-fees bandwagon, is there anything out there for those who leave school early but are ready to study later in life?

[1] Including those privileged by social engineering criteria as well as the offspring of the very rich and indulgent.

An export to take pride in

As a Brit, I find some of our principal exports a national shame.  We are world-leaders in armaments and in financial services.  The latter are not all bad, but much of them are substantially parasitic on the productive economy.

So I’m cheered by today’s news: high net immigration, together with lots of student visas.  It indicates we’re successfully exporting education.  Assuming a large proportion of it is legitimate higher education, it suggests the huge expansion we’ve had in the sector isn’t just dilution and dumbing-down.

In the longer term, education should have a neutral effect on net immigration.  That is to say, the number of students arriving to study should balance the number leaving after completing their studies.  A big rise in numbers therefore indicates a real expansion, and is probably due to the fall in sterling making UK costs a whole lot more competitive for foreign students.

Let’s hope our universities are building on their export success to expand their net capacity as centres of excellence.


Pub quiz this evening.  Would it be cheating if I were to take the pocket-‘puter (aka ‘phone) and use it to google?

In my book yes, it would be cheating.  But there must surely be people who do it.  In any case, who cares, in the context of something so supremely unimportant as a pub quiz?

What about other, more meaningful events?  How many pocket-puters get taken into the exams our young folks are doing for real-life qualifications?  I have a distant recollection of the question of allowing pocket calculators being a hottish topic in my day; nowadays the calculator is one and the same device as the phone, camera, walkman, pocket-puter, etc.  How is an exam invigilator to tell what other functions a candidate’s calculator offers?

On the other hand, maybe that’s supremely unimportant too.  A candidate with the nouse to google is going to find school exams utterly trivial, too.  And once you’re at university level, the ability to use available resources – including google – is a core part of the skillset you’re supposed to be demonstrating.

A generation on

This time 30 years ago, I had just left school, and was doing a summer job, to earn a few quid before going up to Cambridge.  I remember feeling a bit apprehensive at leaving the familiar behind.  That is, until I started the new life at Cambridge.  It was a fantastic time: lots of intellectual (and other) stimulation, coupled with a relaxed lifestyle and a great chance to pursue a range of interests (at least, those which don’t cost money).  Above all, a young man’s first experience of freedom!

Today I’ve just heard that my oldest nephew Tim has been accepted to follow in his uncle’s footsteps, and will read Maths at Cambridge.  Not the same college (he’s going to Clare; I went to Girton), but close enough to feel like something of a family tradition.  Tim had to wait until now to find out, because the entrance exams he took have moved to after the A-levels.

Congratulations Tim!

I know it’s a vain hope in older people to influence the young, but I still venture to hope Tim can experience the benefits of student life I enjoyed, while avoiding my mistakes.  In particular, my advice to any bright youngster starting at Uni: the hardest thing you’ll face is to unlearn what you learned at school, that you never have to work, and everything is far too easy.  You’ve just reached the point where “why are you patronising us with such trivia” no longer applies.

Revaluing a debased currency

Recent news: Cambridge university to require higher A-level grades, including a newly-minted A* grade.  Politically-correct establishment (“mediocrity for all”) protests feebly about discriminating against pupils from state schools.

Speaking as someone who went from a big state school[1] straight to Cambridge, I feel slightly qualified to pontificate on this subject.  My schooling made me unambiguously an unprivileged child, and I assumed my acceptance at Cambridge was based on merit.  That’s exactly what the Politically Correct want to see more of.  Isn’t it?

So what enabled me to make that jump?  It was two things: one economic (student grants), the other academic (entrance exams).  The latter was crucial, because the general exams taken by everyone at 18 were wholly inadequate: anyone with half-serious aspirations to Cambridge or other well-regarded universities could expect to get 96-100%, in exams where a shameful 65% would get you the top grades.  If you base entrance on A-levels, it’s a lottery tending towards Mao’s China.

That was 30 years ago.  Since then it’s got worse, as evidenced by the ever-rising numbers of top grades awarded[2].  I’d certainly have welcomed a less-devalued top grade, and I’m sure the current generation of Cambridge candidates at comprehensive schools do likewise.  Even if some who purport to speak on their behalf don’t agree.

I took the Cambridge entrance exam in (IIRC) January of my final year at school.  In sharp contrast to the A-levels, I found it genuinely challenging and was not certain of success.  Later at Cambridge, I recollect a conversation with a contemporary who found even that exam far too easy, and who attributed that to the Cambridge-focussed coaching he’d had at his (fee-paying) school.  If he was right, then the PC whingers may have a genuine point, that the exams were an unfair advantage to some privileged candidates.  So what should – or can – the University[3] do about it?

Well, I happen to know someone who is in his final year at school and is a candidate for Cambridge this year.  Like every bright youngster, he too finds the A-levels far too easy.  But he too is taking an entrance exam.  Just one crucial change from my day: the exam has moved from January to July, after the end of the school year.  Before it, the candidates get an intensive couple of weeks coaching at Cambridge, so they’re all prepared for it!

It’s hard to see what more anyone could do to level the playing field.  I guess the PC whingers are just unhappy that it could be levelled upwards based on academic criteria, rather than downwards to a lottery.  Let me commend The Gondoliers to them: WS Gilbert in 1889 saw the absurdity of levelling society by decree!  Come to think of it, that’d make good reading for today’s economists and bankers too.

[1] A “comprehensive” – an invention of the socialist agenda of the 1960s that replaced selection at 11 based on IQ, and survives to this day.  Most children go to comprehensive schools from age 11 to 16 or 18, but aspirational parents look down on them and try very hard to avoid them.

[2] No, I’m not saying it’s got easier since my time (I’ve no idea if it has).  Just that its abject failure to distinguish the sheep from the goats has got ever worse.

[3] Or rather the colleges, who each manage their own admissions.