Friday, March 21, 2008

British education "Orwellian" say lazy teachers

They hate having their competence judged. They would not last 5 minutes in business

Education in England could soon become "Orwellian" under a regime of targets, testing, tables, inspections and observation, teachers' leaders warn. Julia Neal, president of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said this was the likely outcome of over-measured, over-monitored schools. The focus is on tests and targets, not personalised learning, she told her union's annual conference in Torquay. Ms Neal imagined a sinister future with CCTV surveillance in every classroom.

Ms Neal - a history teacher in Torquay Grammar School for Girls - imagines the world in 2013, when children are tested on a rolling basis and take regular mock tests to make sure they are ready for the real ones. "Failure to demonstrate a year-on-year improvement in pass rates would be just too embarrassing," she says. The new Ministry of Trust puts so much faith in teachers' professional assessments of their pupils it deploys inspectors to visit schools, "just to help out". "Luckily for the inspectors, CCTV is now obligatory in schools so they can watch teachers in action at any time, without prior notice. "After all, inspectors are there to offer support, just like a family member, perhaps - just like a big brother."

In this vision, league tables fluctuate weekly, parents wait for the transfer window to open so they can apply for a place at the premiership schools. "What I fear is that children would continue to feel disengaged and alienated, they would behave badly, and their truancy rates would continue to rise," Ms Neal says. Her alternative vision - in which the government has listened to her union's policies - is one in which GCSEs and A-levels have been replaced by a comprehensive diploma. Assessment is carried out mostly by teachers and there are no league tables.

Curriculum flexibility gives teachers the freedom to innovate [or slack off] and schools are "buzzing" with new ways to organise learning, with a new emphasis on "a range of skills rather than a narrow range of knowledge". Talking to reporters, Ms Neal and fellow leaders of the union conceded they did not know of any widespread use of surveillance cameras or two-way mirrors in classrooms, though they said monitoring was more common in newly-built schools and academies.

They said teachers did not object to being observed teaching a class. But they wanted to have a professional dialogue about the process with a suitably qualified colleague - not "a malevolent observer" who might pick out one or two classroom interactions and draw a conclusion just from those. Excessive monitoring stifled creativity and the enjoyment of teaching and learning, Ms Neal said.

The union's deputy general secretary, Martin Johnson, said: "I think it's a sad, sad reflection on the profession at the moment that a lot of our members are quite suspicious of a lot of things." They mistrusted the motives of their managers and of the government. "As to how much that's appropriate, that's another question, but that's how they feel." The Department for Children, Schools and Families declined to comment on the union president's speech.


The Jevons' Paradox

By emeritus professor Philip Stott

"It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth." [William Stanley Jevons (1835 - 1882)]

It is widely assumed that the more efficient use of a resource (e.g. energy or fuel) will automatically reduce both the consumption of that resource and consumption in general. This belief has fueled a widespread current trope that increasing energy efficiency is a no-brainer, whatever one thinks about global warming. But how valid is such an argument?

In 1865, the Liverpool-born logician and economist, William Stanley Jevons (1835 - 1882) [above], wrote an influential book, entitled The Coal Question; An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines (London: Macmillan & Co). Jevons observed that the consumption of coal rose rapidly after James Watt had introduced his coal-fired steam engine, which much improved the efficiency of Thomas Newcomens earlier designs. Watts innovations made coal a more cost effective source of power, leading to an increased use of the steam engine in a wider range of industries. This in turn increased total coal consumption, even though the amount of coal required for any particular application dropped through efficiency gains.

This phenomenon has become known as Jevons Paradox, and we hear remarkably little about it these days. Indeed, somewhat paradoxically, it appears to be the last thing politicians would like us to contemplate. The basic paradox goes thus: any increase in the efficiency with which energy is employed will cause a concomitant decrease in the price or cost of that resource when measured in terms of work done. Thus, with a lower price/cost per unit of work, more work will be purchased. This additional work need not be for the same product, as it was with Jevons coal, but it may be displaced into the purchase of new product ranges or work. To put it simply: if I save money by insulating my home, I may use those savings to buy an additional computer, a patio heater, or holiday abroad. The degree of additional work, or displacement, will depend above all on the price elasticity of demand.

Thus, the more a government subsides so-called energy efficiency, the more I shall be able to use the money saved to buy further energy-using goods and services, which may well increase my overall energy demand. If my car is more energy efficient, I may well decide that I can make many more journeys.

The assumption that Homo oeconomicus will adopt energy efficiency for its own sake, and for an indeterminate good promoted by politicians, flies in the face of normal economic behaviour. Homo oeconomicus will embrace energy efficiency above all to release resources for increased overall and wider consumption.

Thus, Jevons remains highly relevant today. What is also of interest is the fact that Jevons was, fundamentally, a Malthusian, who was deeply worried about the peaking of coal, just as we are of the peaking of oil:

I must point out the painful fact that such a rate of growth will before long render our consumption of coal comparable with the total supply. In the increasing depth and difficulty of coal mining we shall meet that vague, but inevitable boundary that will stop our progress.

Yet, Jevons fell into a typical Malthusian elephant-trap, believing that petroleum would not become a significant energy source, and that coal could not be replaced by other forms of energy. Jevons was, of course, proved dramatically wrong over such energy boundaries, just as today. Neo-Malthusians will likewise be found wanting (and, highly paradoxically, it will be partly through the return of King Coal).

Nevertheless, Jevons famous Paradox could well prove the undoing of political pontificating over energy efficiency, as the money saved widens consumption yet further. Indeed, energy efficiency may increase energy use overall. What a Green paradox!


The British Labour party begins to get it: "Labour needs to start urgently winning back the middle-class vote by highlighting issues such as crime and immigration if it is to win the next general election, Hazel Blears said last night. In an unashamedly Blairite new Labour speech, the Communities Secretary said it was vital that the party pitched itself as the "party of the affluent" as well as the poorest families. During a debate held by Progress, a group of modernisers, the Blairite minister Ms Blears argued that the New Labour approach had delivered three election victories by appealing to those across the social spectrum. "If we retreat into our comfort zone, and duck the tough issues such as crime and immigration our coalition will fracture." Her speech follows John Hutton's remarks earlier this month that he wanted to see "more millionaires". Mr Hutton, the Business Secretary who is also a prominent Blairite, sparked a row by urging the party not to attack huge salaries and bonuses in the City."

Hillary endorses bitchy British gold-digger: "If like me you share the twin obsessions of the Beatles and American politics, you might enjoy this example where the two "Come Together". It seems that the woman whose evidence was branded "inaccurate but also less than candid" in places "wholly exaggerated" or "make-belief", who may have attempted to defraud her husband over the mortgage on a property and has "an explosive and volatile character" and who could provide no evidence of her claim of giving 80-90% of her income to charity does have a couple of things going for her. Heather Mills has two celebrity video character witnesses proudly displayed on her website, Richard Branson and Hillary Clinton. It's been said of Senator Clinton that she reminds too many men of their first wife. Being on the side of Heather Mills won't help dispel that impression."

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