It's ironic that a group of well-known writers, scientists and comedians should express their unhappiness with the Prime Minister's characterisation of Britain as a "Christian country" in the form of a jointly written letter to a newspaper. Such letters implicitly exploit the authority conferred upon celebrities in contemporary Britain, demanding that a point of view be taken seriously for no other reason than that it is held by a large number of famous people. (To read more, click here.)
So what should you do if your child is one of the 86,000 who've missed out on their first choice of primary school?
First of all, don't despair. If your child has been offered a place at their second – or third or fourth – choice of school, the chances are he or she will be okay. I've just co-authored a book about the primary national curriculum and, in the course of researching it, I've visited a lot of primaries and spoken to a lot of primary school teachers. My conclusion is that there really isn't a huge gulf between a primary school ranked 'outstanding' by Ofsted and one ranked 'good'. Indeed, I'd go further and say the gap in quality between the primary at the top of the school league table in a particular borough and the primary at the bottom isn't that great. Certainly not as big as you'd imagine. In general, the most over-subscribed primaries – the ones that pushy, middle-class parents climb over each other to get into – tend to be over-rated. They top the league tables because they attract the most able, best supported children, not because they're any good. The truth is that even the most highly sought-after primaries are pretty mediocre. You shouldn't lose much sleep over the fact that your child hasn't been offered a place at a school that's fractionally less mediocre than the school they have been offered a place at.
Okay, that's the throat-clearing bit over. (To read more, click here.)
I wasn't surprised to learn that "nearly all schools" have a problem with bad behaviour, according to a report published in the Review of Education. The study was based on four investigations over a 10-year period involving more than 1,000 trainee teachers, staff and pupils. They were asked to rate behaviour in their schools on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the best. The average score for inner-city schools was 6.5. That's a long way short of Ofsted's claim that behaviour is "good" or "outstanding" in 92 per cent of England's schools.
I know whom I believe. A couple of weeks ago I had a chat with a shopkeeper about the behaviour of the children at the school next door to his shop in West London – a much more reliable guide to pupil behaviour than Ofsted in my experience. He told me stories that made my hair stand on end. I then Googled the school and, sure enough, Ofsted had ranked the behaviour of the pupils as "outstanding". I showed the report to the shopkeeper and he stared at the screen in dumb disbelief. He then burst out laughing. (To read more, click here.)
I was shocked to learn that Brandeis University, a liberal arts college in Massachusetts, has withdrawn its offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the outspoken critic of female genital mutilation and a campaigner on behalf of Muslim women.
“We cannot overlook that certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values,” the university said in a statement released yesterday, just eight days after announcing that Hirsi Ali would be awarded an honorary degree.
The change of heart was prompted by a well-organised campaign by various pro-Muslim groups, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations which sent a letter to Dr. Lawrence, the President of Brandeis, referring to Hirsi Ali as a “notorious Islamophobe.” “She is one of the worst of the worst of the Islam haters in America, not only in America but worldwide,” Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the group, said in an interview with the New York Times. (To read more, click here.)
Oh dear. Tristram Hunt, Labour's inept education spokesman, has made yet another blunder. He chose today of all days to launch a blistering attack on free schools, apparently unaware that Ofsted has just published a report ranking the Reach Academy in Feltham – a free school set up by a graduate of the Teach First programme – "Outstanding". Of the first wave of free schools to be inspected, 75 per cent have been ranked "Good" or "Outstanding", compared to a national average of just 64 per cent.
I can think of at least 11 other howlers the gaffe-prone Labour frontbencher had made. (To read more, click here.)
It’s scarcely possible to open a newspaper or magazine these days without reading an article about how the latest technological gizmo has rendered traditional education obsolete.
According to Justin Webb, a presenter on the Today programme, it’s no longer necessary to commit any facts to memory thanks to the never-ending miracle that is Google. “Knowing things is hopelessly twentieth century,” he wrote in the Radio Times. “The reason is that everything you need to know – things you may previously have memorised from books – is (or soon will be) instantly available on a handheld device in your pocket.”
The same view was expressed by Ian Livingstone CBE, one of the pioneers of the UK games industry. In a recent interview in The Times he said he intends to set up a free school where children will learn how to “solve problems” and be “creative”, rather than forced to memorise “irrelevant” facts that can be accessed “at the click of a mouse”.
Well, that was more like it. If last week's bout was the warm-up match, this was the real thing, with both men getting stuck in to each other. It was less about Europe than about two different styles of politics – the insider v the outsider, the rebel v the Establishment. That suited Nigel Farage down to the ground and he won convincingly.
Farage wasn’t just more relaxed, he seemed to be actively enjoying himself, whereas Nick Clegg was nervous and defensive. I didn’t think Clegg lost last week’s debate, but the polls told a different story and for that reason the Lib Dem leader had clearly decided he needed to be a bit warmer and more human. What that meant in practice is that he came armed with a lot of pre-scripted “jokes”, each more painful than the last. That always goes down badly and tonight’s debate was no exception. Television is a medium that rewards spontaneity not preparation, one of the reasons Boris comes across so well. You can't create the impression you're a down-to-earth, "normal" bloke by having your spin doctors write a series of one-liners for you. Any viewer can see through that in a second. Clegg ended up seeming even more aloof and out of touch – like a vicar at the Sixth Form disco, trying to be "down with the kids" by doing a "crazy" dance. It was painful. (To read more, click here.)
On Saturday I wrote a Comment piece for the Telegraph arguing that one of the consequences of the trendy, progressive approach to education favoured by the Left-wing "experts" who still control Britain's public education system is that children from low income families leave school unable to compete with their more affluent peers. I argued that the only way to level the playing field is to return to a more traditional approach, which is one of the reasons the poorest 10 per cent of teenagers in Shanghai perform at the same level in international maths tests as the richest 20 per cent in Britain. As the American educationalist E D Hirsch writes: "Educational progressivism is a sure means for preserving the social status quo, whereas the best practices of educational conservatism are the only means whereby children from disadvantaged homes can secure the knowledge and skills that will enable them to improve their condition." The piece was taken from a pamphlet I've just written for Civitas, the centre-Right think tank. You can read the full-length essay here.
One of the most common arguments against "educational conservatism", i.e. a knowledge-based approach in which children are expected to commit a large number of facts to their long-term memories, is that there's no point in asking children to memorise any facts because if they want to know something they can just look it up on Google. As the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), one of the largest teaching unions, puts it: "Rote-learning of facts must give way to nurturing through education of essential transferable skills than enable the next generation to navigate the information age."
This isn't a view that's confined to the teaching unions. Incredibly, it's also quite prevalent among journalists. (To read more, click here.)
I feel terribly sorry for Mark Menzies, the Conservative MP who's resigned as a PPS following tabloid revelations and allegations about his private life. Clearly, the "revelation" here isn't just the fact that Menzies is gay. He's also accused of paying a male prostitute for sex, among other things. But that fact that he's a Conservative member of the Government and gay gives the scandal more tabloid resonance.
What can the Conservatives do to lessen their exposure to these sorts of scandals in future? The solution, I believe, is for all gay and lesbian Conservative MPs to come out in a very public, headline-grabbing way. Not that many of them are "in the closet" in the conventional sense of the term, i.e. leading a double life in which they're pretending to be happily married. Most are bachelors who are neither in the closet nor out of it, but in a kind of antechamber where they don't pretend to be straight but, at the same time, don't draw attention to their homosexuality either. Well, I think the time has come for them to draw attention to it. What has previously gone unmentioned, tacitly accepted within the party with a nod and a wink but not publicly acknowledged, should now be brought out into the open. And what better time for the pink ’n’ blues to come out than right now, when same-sex marriage has just become legal thanks in large part to the leader of the Conservative Party?
I can think of three good reasons why they should do this. (To read more, click here.)
I've just written a pamphlet for Civitas called 'Prisoners of the Blob: Why most education experts are wrong about nearly everything'. You can read an extract in the Telegraph here and read the full version here.