Easier and easier

Now, this business of improving “A” level and GCSE scores.  What could account for them ?  It is a real conundrum, because many fewer people took “A” levels in the past, so you’d expect, if anything, results today to be worse*.  Let us start with the understanding that it could not possibly be that things are being done better – after all, this is the public sector and so any recorded improvement must be the result of fraud or declining standards (Question – what would the Daily Mail say about educational standards if pass rates fell year on year ?).  This leaves the following possibilities:

  • Possibility 1: Kids are getting brighter. Now, this is not as stupid as it sounds.  There is a long term effect – known as the Flynn effect – which notes that IQ scores are improving decade by decade. The decade improvement is about 3 percentage points, so kids taking “A” levels now are, on average, 12 points brighter than, er, us.  Why does this happen ? No-one knows.  Could be less lead in the atmosphere, or too much lead in our pencils.  However, the broad IQ effect is unlikely to be a great explanation for improving “A” level scores, because the entry is not made up of the whole population but selected by ability – if you don’t get 5 good GCSEs, you’re not allowed on the course.  Also, the biggest rise in IQ is at the low ability level, where people don’t take academic education post 16.I do think, though, that kids work harder today.  I cannot remember ‘study buddy’ groups in my sixth form, whereas today it is common to see classmates meeting outside lesson hours to go over new or difficult topics.  For what it’s worth, I had a girlfriend who went to university in the 1980s, and her cohort worked very, very much harder than I did over my degree. Remember, the number of first class honours degrees has risen at least as sharply as good “A” level results.
  • Possibility 2: Teaching is getting better, as all teachers have to be teacher trained (not true in 1960 grammar schools) and inspection is more austere, eliminating the worst performers. Years ago I can recall working in colleges where there were some classes in which almost everyone passed, and other subjects almost no-one passed, due to teacher incompetence.  One guy I observed when doing my own teaching practice was a total disgrace.  Problem with this as a general explanation – there is a weak relationship between teacher training and classroom quality as observed by inspectors
  • Possibility 3 – the exams are getting easier. If by this we mean ‘the curriculum is narrower and the concepts less complex and demanding’ this probably isn’t true.  I haven’t done objective comparisons with past papers, but people who have (and have no axe to grind) say the standard is comparable though there remain some doubts in hard science areas.  I think it probably is true that some boards were more austere than others – at economics, I had the feeling that JMB was maybe half a grade more difficult than AEB, though most students who entered in a number of boards – don’t know if it’s still allowed – on the basis that buying more lottery tickets increased chances of success, got the exact same score in each.   I taught “A” level economics from 1969 to 1981 and my impression was that it did not get easier, but I got better at teaching it: see below.
  • Possibility 4 – the way that students and teachers approach the exams is more focused. This is, I believe, the answer.  Examinations are nowadays presented in a way which is much more precise about what is expected, questions are less ambivalent, mark schemes make clear how much is awarded for each section of the question.  Teachers coach classes in study skills and revision effectiveness.  Lessons have specified learning goals, which are shared with the class and tested.  Students are more demanding.  Extra classes are put on where students can drop in for additional help.  This is the “Mount Everest” explanation – the reason there are more climbers now is not that the mountain is lower, but we have much more of a clue about how to climb it successfully.

Oh, one last thing. I am usually in France when the bac results come out. They are getting better each year, and the press wonder whether standards are falling.

*It is this difference in staying on rates that explains why employers say skills of school leavers are poorer than in the past.  In the past, when few people stayed on beyond 16 and only 3% went to university, there were many more bright competent people entering the labour market at 16 and 18 than today

The jury is out

There is currently a debate about the worth of the jury system, following the collapse of the trial of Vicky Pryce, a politician’s wife accused of lying to prevent his being disqualified from driving.

The concern comes from questions which the jury foreman asked the judge.  For example, he enquired what was meant by “reasonable doubt”: the irascible justice replied ‘doubt that is reasonable’, which strikes me as a poor response.  Ooops, contempt of court ??  When I served as a juror, our judge explained carefully that we needed to be sure of our conclusions, but must not invent any fanciful reasons why the accused might just be innocent.  The Pryce foreman also asked if the jury could take into account matters not tested in court: the answer is ‘of course not’, but I would guess he was trying to control a wayward member of his jury, not overturn British legal principles.  The press has also expressed outrage that another jury asked for a whiteboard and marker pens, when this seems to me an entirely reasonable request: it’s equipment available at the most humble of management meetings.

I have done jury service twice.  I understand the reasons why I cannot give details that could identify the cases, but an outline should help the current debate.  A useful video explained what would happen, and how our job worked.  Then we were sent off to our work.  My jury members were a diverse bunch – black and white, male and female, a carpenter and a stockbroker.  It’s worth saying that, against the hints that the problem with the Pryce jury was that they were a little too, what shall we say, ethnic.  We did four cases, and each time I was impressed with their commitment, honesty, and common sense. The dress sense – something the press seemed to think was crucial – may have been awry (the foreman’s Hawaiian shorts and flip-flops would not have been my choice) but I don’t believe the verdicts were.

What was common to the cases was the incompetence of the lawyers, who took hours to establish simple points and tried to befuddle straightforward cases.  In one instance, they alleged police brutality had taken place after the offence we were trying: so, it might have been true but it was clearly irrelevant to whether or not the defendant committed the offence.  In another case, the defence claimed mistaken identity for an assailant plainly caught on camera and grabbed by bouncers to be handed over to the police.  And an accusation of shoplifting fell because someone – whether the prosecuting authorities or the retailer, I don’t know – could not produce the security guard or the manager from the day of the offence, and ignored compelling medical evidence of innocence.  Now we are told we need lawyers to guide juries.  Lawks a mercy.  We don’t want lawyers on juries – the whole point is to get a lay person’s view. The fact that a judge could not answer a sensible question about the meaning of reasonable doubt was shows how much this is needed.

Also noticeable was the inefficiency of the system: my wife later served for two weeks without hearing a single case. It seems that this is often the effect of a defendant pleading guilty on the day: making this option available only up to 24 hours before the start of proceedings might concentrate minds as well as save time and money.

I know, ’cause I was there

Max Boyce was given to end a rambling story about incidents at a Welsh international rugby match with the deeply felt words – “I know, because I was there”.  Recently, the magnificent Danny Baker gave over part of his Saturday morning radio show to a phone-in on the same topic, which made me consider where I stood on this topic.  I think I am less nostalgic than many people of my age –  when it came to the sixties, for example, I remember a decade with poor central heating, no drugs and precious little sex or rock’n’roll.

However, I do have some “I was there” stories to claim.   My father used to take me and my brothers to see Charlton Athletic, and we were there on the 27th December 1957 when they beat Huddersfield 7-6 having been 1-5 down, only ten men on the pitch and twenty minutes to go.  Exciting ?  My dad was surprised that people didn’t die of heart failure.  The attendance was (I read now) 12,535, but you’d never know it from the number of grey-beards who lean against the saloon bars from Catford to Bexley, from Erith to Lewisham, and give their memories on the great day.  The other historic event I attended was the fabled 1966 Bob Dylan concert at the Albert Hall, when he played a set with electric guitars.  The first half of the concert was played acoustically, with Dylan alone on stage singing the protest songs from the first couple of albums, which greatly pleased the crowd in duffel coats.  The second half was the controversial one, with what became later The Band backing the great man: the hum from the amplifiers as they walked on stage was louder than most bands we’d heard.  The incident when a folkie shouted “Judas” took place in Manchester, not London, but at the Albert Hall I do remember one pompous prat in a voluminous sweater asking “What would Woody say ?” as he – well, not exactly stormed out, but shambled to the exit.  I was there, and I have witnesses who also crammed in to Rick Watson’s red Austin A35 van.

Now, though, one must confess the times when I wasn’t there.  I was sitting in a bar after playing rugby when a friend came up and said he had a spare ticket to see The Who play live at Leeds. Like an idiot I said I was a bit tired and missed one of Keith Moon’s last gigs.  And a few years ago, a friend encouraged me to see a band he really liked at Sheffield’s Boardwalk.  Down we went, and heard the set, which I didn’t like very much at all, so we finished our drinks and went home, missing the next band of promising locals who my son-in-law had come to watch – the Arctic Monkeys.  Ho hum.

The hardest word ?

The recent debate about the anti-Semitic (or not) Scarfe cartoon made me think about the increased fashion for public apologies.  I have to thank a friend for clarifying my mind on this issue, which does need some discussion.  Now, discussion of the matter of apologies and forgiveness is not new.  It has been part of Christian practice, for example, for a long time.  I’m not a Roman Catholic (believe me, I really am not) but the idea of confession has some psychological depth.  When one has offended against the moral code one hopes to live by, one should face up to that fact, express genuine contrition, and make amends.  Otherwise you can live in a fog of guilt.   I think the Rupert Murdoch apology about the Scarfe cartoon – which essentially says we were wrong and won’t do it again – is a decent response.  The idea of truth and reconciliation, originating in South Africa but used to allow other fractured states to move on, requires penitence and recompense.

The modern politicians’ apology is not, however, like that.  My mate has suggested that apologies can be categorized into a number of groups.  Here goes:

  • “I am sorry that you were upset” This implies there is nothing wrong with what I said or did, and it’s really sad that you are so petty minded that you took umbrage.
  • “Oops, you caught me out. How can I get out of this with least damage ?”  David Ward, the Liberal Democrat MP for a Bradford constituency (code – lots of Pakistani heritage voters) said (again on Holocaust Memorial Day) he felt that “the suffering by the Jews has not transformed their views on how others should be treated”.   He now says that he “never for a moment intended to criticise or offend the Jewish people as a whole, either as a race or as a people of faith, and apologises sincerely for the unintended offence which my words caused”.  Note that he is not sorry that he conflated Jews with Israel, or equated a foreign policy stance he dislikes with planned mass murder: Daniel Finkelstein has destroyed his position in a brief but delicious rejoinder.  And as far as Mr. Ward’s apology goes, penitence, the essential component of the confessional, is absent.
  • Suggest your action is a bizarre exception from your normal standards. This is what companies do – key phrase “we are sorry that on this occasion our service did not meet your expectations” – translation, we would like you to think that it is really odd that we were not as utterly wonderful as we usually are.  See also John Galliano racist rant when drunk: ‘completely out of character’.  Oh, yeah ? In vino bloody veritas, in my view.
  • Look at Nick Clegg’s apology for raising university tuition fees after he said he would abolish them.  What is he actually saying ?  That the policy was wrong, because it was unaffordable – i.e. I apologise for recommending  policies I now see were ill-advised (i.e. I was bad at what a politician should be good at) ?  That he now realises he shouldn’t make promises unless he can be sure he is able to keep them ?  (er, yes)  I suspect the truth is somewhere between the two – and that the Liberals were taken aback to be in government after 70 years, where all the undeliverable ‘pledges’ they have made to gain easy popularity now have to be faced.  On the other hand, he does look very penitent indeed.
  • “If I was wrong, then so were all the other people who did just the same”. This assumes that the rest of the world is picking on you, when your behaviour was no different from everyone else’s.  See Lance Armstrong, see MP expense accounts.
  • Put things off for a long time – see slavery apologies. Establish an enquiry, ideally one that will go on for years.  This is the line used regarding treatment of Mau Mau detainees, Hillsborough, Bloody Sunday
  • Don’t apologise at all. This is the line used by the IRA for their actions during the Emergency in Northern Ireland.  The explanation for killing Protestants (or Catholics who disagreed with them) is now “how regrettable that such things happen in war”.  Contrast with Bloody Sunday above (14 dead in Bogside massacre, 21 dead in Birmingham bombing).  Don’t recall any apology by anyone for shooting a school kid on a bus for wanting female education, either. Or a call for an independent public enquiry.

And after you’ve made your weasel apology, you wait while and say the time has come to “draw a line under” the incident and “move on”.  See David Laws MP.  Took the Chief Executive of Barclays Bank about two years after the crash (in fact, before the LIBOR scandal broke) to come up with the ‘let’s move on and stop being beastly to bankers’ line.  Shall we have a sweep on how many months it will take for Chris Huhne to use it ?  What is unlikely is that he will reveal the class of John Profumo, who, after being exposed for his part in denying an affair when Minister of Defence,  apologised, resigned and spent the remainder of his life working for charity in the East End of London.

Footnote: the appalling errors of the Johnson government of the 2020s led to a plethora of apologies, most of the “I’m sorry you felt that way” variety explained above.  It got to the stage of Matthew Parris, a decent Tory, suggesting we could just do with fewer apologies.

Six degrees of separation

This entry is a bit Facebooky – apologies for that but the occasional personal flippancy lightens the gloom of talking about our disastrous government, intellectual dishonesty and the national debt. I attended a wonderful dinner party last night when conversation turned to the idea of six degrees of separation – the idea that we are all just six contacts or conversations away from anyone else in the world. Now, working as a college Principal in London gives you a bit of a head start here. I’ve ‘met’ (i.e. been in a line of introductions involving) the Queen, Prince Charles, Tony Blair and John Major. This opens up very short lines of separation from Princess Diana, Nicolas Ceaucescu, Presidents Mugabe and Gorbachev, King George VI, Bill Clinton, the Beatles and various other notables, worthies and scoundrels. But Nelson Mandela once visited Brixton when I was there, and I really regret I haven’t got any photograph of my handshake with him. When I went back to the college office, most of the admin staff wanted to shake my hand just to get a few microns of Mr Mandela’s DNA to tell their kids and partners about.

But Nelson Mandela opens up a new range of one-leap-away contacts, which one malicious diner last night pointed out included the Spice Girls. Oh, well, you can’t win ’em all.