Friday, 20 March 2009

In our Time: a national treasure

I wonder whether, anywhere in the world, there exists such a civilised and important radio programme as "In Our Time" on BBC radio 4. In a 45 minute broadcast, also available on the web through BBC iplayer, each week it picks an important intellectual topic from history, science, art, philosophy, literature and gathers three or four academic experts to discuss and expound the subject, guided and kept on track by its 'host' Melvyn Bragg. Occasionally the discussion fails to convey a clear understanding of the key points of a subject to the listeners, perhaps because the subject is too complex for the medium or because the host does not quite understand it himself and so the potential wisdom and knowledge is not controlled and channelled but evaporates in all directions. But these times are rare.

Recent subjects have ranged from "The Measurement Problem in Physics", through "The library of Alexandria" to "The Brothers Grimm". It is a jewel that, on its own, justifies the entire BBC licence fee.

Monday, 2 March 2009

My Rant on Education

I saw Chris Woodhead's piece in the Sunday Times and it got me going again. By and large he writes well and his arguments are convincing. This time he was reporting on data relating to students getting the grades to get to Oxford and Cambridge. The data shows a disproportionate share of top grades being won by those from independent schools. If, as a nation, we want to give all children of all classes equal opportunities then we clearly have to decide between two choices; make public sector education better so that the children from comprehensives get better results or else make access easier, which is code for making A levels easier, and bully universities to select on the basis of (low) family income.

There is a problem with the latter choice, which is that we are in global competition with other nations and the battlefield is that of skills. If our national skill set is not up to snuff then we will fall back economically too: jobs and industries will migrate. If the better universities are forced to take less well educated students then their standards and outcomes will inevitably drop and we will fall back in the race. In any case, social engineering of this sort seems doomed to fail since even in comprehensives the children of the middle classes will still fare better. Their parents will pay for extra tuition, take them to concerts, buy books and computers, will give them experiences that broaden understanding and will encourage them in intellectual activities. Recently published research shows that disadvantaged children have already suffered significantly by the age of three simply on account of differences in parenting - talking to and playing with babies.

So please let us abandon the class war and focus on improving the public sector schools whilst maintaining educational standards. There is good evidence that it can be done. Tough school heads who impose discipline, exclude troublemakers and dismiss poor teachers do achieve much better results. Yes this still leaves us with the problem of what to do with those difficult children but we would have had that problem anyway.