20 April 2009

Calling Boris on his B.S.

One of my favourite pastimes when on a bit of a posting roll is to take issue with Telegraph columnists. Normally I pick the easiest target - the risible Simon Heffer - but today it's time to put Boris Johnson in the firing line.

Poor old Boris. He won the mayoral election last year on a wave of anti-Labour sentiment - since when he's achieved pretty much nothing of value whilst, in the media, his old nemesis Ken Livingstone stays one step ahead of him at every turn.

To compensate for the manifest failure of his day job, Boris ups the ante with his side-job as a Telegraph columnist. Some days this can be mildly amusing: today it resulted in the biggest slice of bullshit on education policy I've seen in years. It makes even the likes of Andrew Adonis (now thankfully moved to the transport brief where he can probably do less damage) look relatively sane.

Boris has noticed the minor bust-up in the Labour party over the possible selection of Georgia Gould, daughter of New Labour architect Philip Gould, for the (normally) safe Labour seat of Erith and Thamesmead, and used it as a stick to beat Labour supporters with over the party's education reforms. Or in fact, every education reform of the last 50 years (all of which were either introduced or supported by the Conservatives, but never mind). Apparently Labour education policy is responsible for nepotism in the selection procedure for Labour election candidates. A bit confused by the logic of the argument? So am I.

Johnson cites evidence that children who were born to middle-class parents in 1970 had a much bigger advantage over children of working class parents than equivalent children born in 1958. And yes, research using studies of children born in 1958 and 1970 shows that does seem to have been the case. But when were those kids born in 1970 growing up and entering the labour market? The 1980s and 1990s. A period in which the Thatcher and Major governments presided over the biggest increase in inequality in this country's history.

So, largely speaking, it's the Tories' fault, not Labour's fault. Now we'd all love to know what's been happening to inequalities and class advantages since New Labour took office in 1997 - and if Boris had had some evidence on that, then he might have had some kind of coherent article, rather than stitched-up rantings. But sadly there are no cohort studies of kids born in the UK in the 1980s or 1990s. Why? Because the Tories decided the study of kids born in 1982 (i.e. 12 years after the 1970 study) was too expensive, and scrapped it. Indeed there wasn't another study of this type until the 'Millennium Cohort study' of kids born in 2000... under New Labour.

Johnson then adds insult to injury by calling for a return to academic selection - but completely fails to explain how this would benefit working class kids. I went to a grammar school and it was completely dominated by middle-class kids - many of whom had been to private sector primary schools where they were very heavily coached for the 11-plus. Selection is an act of desperation - condemning the vast majority of kids to a second (or third) class education so that you can focus on a small elite in the grammar schools. What we need in education is the opposite of selection - a completely inclusive system, with no-one able to buy a better quality education place than anyone else, and no opt-outs. The private sector itself is a selective system (by income) - so,
let's abolish the damn thing. ONE high-quality system for all is the way foward.

Boris Johnson is a fucking idiot on education policy. And he's a clown of a mayor.


Van Patten said...

I'd say he probably hasn't achieved as much as he or I'd have liked, but I'd question whether his predecessor achieved anything of real value. Buses that are wholly inappropriate for the city in question: A congestion charge which has proven more expensive to administer than it has recouped in revenue and taxation levels close to outright larceny.

However, to your contention. I don't think many would contend that an education system that fails so many is remotely adequate in the world in which we live today. If your policies (which appear to be what most on the hard left want)were followed those who are able would simply move their children to other jurisdictions. Nor is this simply a matter of income. I've heard enough anecdotal evidence that families from the former empire are so concerned at the standards of some schols within the state sector in certain inner city boroughs, they are actually sending their children back to the former Colonies in order that some degree of rigourous learning might take place, however pedagolically 'backward' in the eyes of contemporary British educational theory.

In practice the kind of standardisation of system you and I might hope to attain is quite difficult to achieve, and really has only been seen in Communist countries (all of which have 'elite schools')I'm not sure selection along the lines the article has outlined will in itself be a panacea and it was wrong of Johnson to suggest as such. Thorough examination of pedagolical methods and currciular content, as well as the possible reinstatement of some sanctions removed in the 1980's would also be necessary. What you propose however, basically appears to correspond with the Old Nationalised industries of the 1970's, any place you like, so long as the state decides. I think public Schools in Switzerland, Thailand (Even Pakistan) might benefit. Whether the underachieving British schoolchild would is debatable.

giroscoper said...

I think the 'bendy buses' work pretty well. As Channel 4 Dispatches pointed out a few weeks back, Boris's plan to replace them is a massive waste of money.

I'd contend that it's the fragmentation of the current system that's partly to blame for the decline in standards. Huge amounts of cash have been spent on city academies with no appreciable benefit (yet) in terms of results, but a huge transfer of power over children's lives to the private and voluntary sector. They are undemocratic and unaccountable - an intermediate step towards privatisation of the school system.

Local education authorities have also had huge problems as a management system but they at least have the potential for democratic oversight of schools.

Educational standards is a huge issue and one it would take a lot longer to go into. My main purpose in the post was to assert that extending academic selection is not going to do anything to help standards. It gives the appearance of raising standards by selecting a subsample - picking a small percentage of pupils that you're going to teach in a social bubble while the rest of the population is left to rot. Like a greengrocer who picks his best 10% of apples to sell and throws the rest in the bin. Incredible wastage.