I was astonished to discover in conversation with another dad last week that he and his wife intended to introduce a screen ban over half term. Not limiting their children to something reasonable like two hours a day. But a blanket ban. How on earth will they cope — and by ‘they’ I mean him and his wife, not their two kids? It’s not as if they’re going on a family cycling holiday on the Dalmatian Coast. No, they’ll be spending this week at home in Acton. The poor buggers will be forced to play Monopoly Empire from first thing in the morning till last thing at night.
When I hear talk of screen bans, it makes me want to set up a National Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Adults. Maybe it’s worse if you’ve got four kids. We tried it once and within 48 hours Caroline was muttering darkly about filing for divorce. Life without the electronic babysitter — or should that be digital heroin? — was unbearable. Suddenly, our children were lively and inquisitive, asking all sorts of questions about the world around them. For the first time in years, they wanted to engage in conversation. They reminded me of the catatonic patients in Awakenings after Robin Williams has given them a dose of L-dopa. We felt suicidal. (To read more, click here.)
For the past six years or so a variety of arts organisations have been campaigning against the English Baccalaureate, or the ‘EBacc’, as it’s known. To meet this standard, schoolchildren have to get grade C or above in seven GCSEs (Eng lang, Eng lit, maths, two sciences, a humanity and a foreign language) and, according to the campaigners, this means students have been turning away from arts GCSE subjects such as music, drama and dance. They claim that since the EBacc’s introduction by Michael Gove, arts education has been decimated.
Now, I have some sympathy for the lobby groups making this argument. The first part of their case — that the arts are one of the UK’s biggest strengths and are increasingly critical to our economic success — is unassailable. Since 1997, the growth of Britain’s creative industries has outstripped that of many other sectors, adding a gross value of over £84 billion, or 5.2 per cent of the UK’s GDP, in 2014. No one in this debate is suggesting that arts education isn’t hugely important, although the anti-EBacc lobbyists might think otherwise. (To read more, click here.)
I feel conflicted about Jon Platt, the parent at the centre of the court case about unauthorised school absences. On the one hand, there’s much to admire. When he was fined £120 by Isle of Wight Council for taking his daughter on a trip to Disneyland during term time, he decided to fight back. He got the decision overturned in magistrates’ court, the council appealed to the High Court, the lower court’s decision was upheld, and the council then appealed to the Supreme Court. Yet in spite of this gruelling legal process, Mr Platt hasn’t backed down.
When interviewed on television, he seems genuinely angry about being told when he can and can’t take his children on holiday. He doesn’t regard himself as a deadbeat dad — his daughter’s attendance rate at school is above 90 per cent — but believes the new rules, which were introduced by the government in 2013, are too severe. Seen in this light, he’s a conservative hero: a doughty yeoman standing up for his liberty by taking on the overmighty state. (To read more, click here.)
I feel a bit sorry for Piers Morgan. On Tuesday, Ewan McGregor was due to appear on the sofa with Piers on ITV’s Good Morning to talk about the Trainspotting sequel, but he failed to turn up. Later, the actor explained on Twitter that it was due to the journalist’s remarks about the women’s marches that took place last weekend, in which he described some of the participants as ‘rabid feminists’ and suggested he should organise a men’s march in response.
I had a similar experience about five years ago when the actor Matthew Macfadyen pulled out of an interview he was due to do with me. Like McGregor, he said he wouldn’t have agreed to it in the first place if he’d known the journalist in question was a right-wing bastard — or words to that effect. This was for the in-house magazine of John Lewis, in which I had a regular interview slot. I think the editor had been having difficulty persuading anyone famous to sit down with me, because after Macfadyen’s bombshell I was sacked. (To read more, click here.)
The secondary school league tables published yesterday contain a mixed picture for free schools.
On the one hand, results for post-16 free schools were fantastic. Admittedly, we’re talking about a small number (only 15 schools), but they topped the charts for both progress and attainment, recording better A-level results than any other type of school. A whopping 27.8 per cent of students got A/A/B or better, compared to a national average in the state sector of 19.9 per cent.
Some individual post-16 free schools did extraordinarily well. At King’s College London Maths School, for instance, 94.5 per cent of A level entrants got A*/A/B, making it one of the top five state schools in the country. Fourteen of King’s students have received an offer from Oxbridge – an impressive 23 per cent of the year group. Critics will attribute this to the fact that it’s highly selective, but it also achieved a value added score of 0.71, making it, by this measure, the fifth-best state school in the country.
Another big success story is the London Academy of Excellence, with 20 of its students getting offers from Oxford and Cambridge this year. Again, this success isn’t just down to its high entrance requirements. The LAE achieved a value added score of 0.56, placing it in the top 20 for A level progress. (To read more, click here.)
I had lunch recently with an assistant head of a leading independent school and he told me about their ‘growth mindset’ work. He was excited about this and he’s by no means exceptional. Eton, Wellington and Stowe have all enthusiastically embraced it, as have thousands of state schools. Highgate Wood, a comprehensive in north London, says on its website that ‘growth mindset is the cornerstone of our learning ethos’.
I hesitate to call growth mindset a ‘fad’ because that implies it lacks the imprimatur of academic respectability when the opposite is true. The term was coined by Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford, who made a startling discovery in the course of researching children’s cognitive performance in the 1970s. She noticed that children who believe intelligence is learnt are better at solving problems than those who think it’s innate. ‘In a fixed mindset, students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits,’ she wrote. ‘They have a certain amount and that’s that… In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence.’ Having stumbled across this finding, Professor Dweck went on to discover something even more remarkable: a growth mindset can be taught. In a series of landmark experiments, she set two groups of children the same tasks. After completing them, both groups were told they’d done extremely well, with one praised for their ability — ‘You must be smart at these problems’ — and the other for their effort — ‘You must have worked hard at these problems’. The two groups were then asked to perform a second set of tasks and in study after study those who’d been praised for their hard work outperformed those told they were smart. Not just that, those children who’d been encouraged to have a growth mindset were more willing to take on another, harder set of problems, more likely to attribute their failure to solve these problems to a lack of effort rather than a lack of intelligence, and more inclined to persevere in the face of these setbacks. (To read more, click here.)
In 1961, shortly after getting a job as a lecturer at Cambridge, my father had an idea. The faculty buildings, he discovered, were largely unused for six months of the year. The colleges, too, were empty. Why not create two Cambridges, one for term time and one for the holidays? Unlike the Cambridge of dreaming spires and glittering prizes, the second would be for ordinary people who’d missed out on the chance of a university education — labourers, tradesmen, clerks, housewives. It wouldn’t be a place of privilege and over-indulgence, but of hard-working people eager to soak up knowledge. And instead of propping up the English class system, it would turn it on its head.
When he presented this proposal to the university authorities he was met with near universal derision. One don drew attention to his use of the word ‘campus’ to describe the university’s footprint — a ghastly Americanism that no self-respecting Cambridge man would ever use. It was as if some crazy, socialist idealist had suggested to the owners of a stately home that they let their servants sleep in their beds when they weren’t there. (To read more, click here.)
Nineteen years ago I was threatened with a libel suit by Harold Evans because of an article I’d written in the Spectator about his departure as president of the New York publishing company Random House. Via his solicitors, Evans threatened to sue me for libel unless I paid his legal costs, gave a sum of money to charity and signed an undertaking that I would never write about him again.
I can’t claim to have been a high-minded journalist taking on a corrupt businessman. It was more of a Mickey-taking piece, pointing out that the former Sunday Times editor, once a titan of British journalism, had become a humourless, self-important twit since marrying Tina Brown and moving to the U.S. The article was accurate and well-sourced but, being a freelance hack, I was in no position to fight the case. On the other hand, I was reluctant to sign his gagging order, particularly as he wanted me to promise never to write about his wife as well. It was the hypocrisy that really stuck in my craw. Evans presents himself as a champion of free speech yet here he was, trying to use Britain’s libel laws to silence a pesky gadfly.
After Sir Stafford Northcote and Sir Charles Trevelyan completed their report on civil service reform in 1854, in which they made the controversial recommendation that recruitment should be based on a competitive exam, the government carried out what today would be called a consultation. Among the more interesting objections was the view that the reforms would make the civil service less democratically accountable. This argument was summarised by Helen Andrews, an Australian policy wonk, in a fascinating essay entitled ‘The New Ruling Class’ published last summer: ‘Civil servants who felt they owed their jobs to no one and nothing but their own merit would be independent, which was also to say impervious to checks and balances.’
One hundred and sixty-three years later, this warning about the first-ever meritocrats, namely, that they would come to see themselves as an elite whose intelligence and expertise trumped the will of the people, seems rather prescient. Isn’t that exactly why the European and American elites got such a bloody nose in the EU referendum and the US presidential election? (To read more, click here.)
And so it begins again. This time last year, I decided to see how long I could last without alcohol. Not just a dry January for me. Oh no. I saw myself lasting right the way through till the following December. According to a doctor friend, your liver only really regenerates after 12 months. Less than that and the health benefits of not drinking are negligible.
You know how this story ends, although, to be fair, I lasted until 8 February. I’d been booked to give an after-dinner talk to a group of head-teachers at one of England’s most prestigious private schools and I assumed that the wine would be so good — it was an elite group of about a dozen top heads — that I’d have to abandon my teetotalism for one night.
Veteran alcoholics will recognise the siren voice of temptation in this anecdote — the seemingly reason-able excuse, the calm assurance that if you fall off the wagon you can clamber straight back on. Breathtaking naivety. (To read more, click here.)