Towards the end of 2009, shortly after I announced my intention to set up England’s first free school, I debated with Fiona Millar on Newsnight about the pros and cons of allowing parents to set up schools. Fiona had been having this debate, or ones very like it, for at least 20 years and it soon became apparent that I was outmatched. I felt like an amateur who’d stepped into the ring with Mike Tyson.
After five minutes, as I lay bleeding at her feet, she turned to Jeremy Paxman and said: ‘I don’t even know why we’re bothering to have this debate. Toby’s not actually going to do this. Setting up a school is so complicated, it’s not something a group of parents is ever going to manage.’
In the two years that followed, there were moments I feared Fiona might be right, but I also had reason to be grateful to her: the thought of proving her wrong kept me going. (To read more, click here.)
In a recent blogpost, an American economics professor called Robin Hanson asked why it is that income inequality is regarded as a terrible injustice by liberal progressives, but sex inequality — the fact that attractive people generally have more sex than unattractive people — is thought of by the same people as an unalterable fact of life that no one should complain about. ‘One might plausibly argue that those with much less access to sex suffer to a similar degree as those with low income, and might similarly hope to gain from organising around this identity,’ he wrote.
Hanson was prompted to ask this question by last week’s Toronto van attack in which Alek Minassian, a 25-year-old man who described himself as an ‘incel’ (involuntary celibate), killed ten people and injured 15, the worst mass killing in Canada since 1989. In a Facebook post that surfaced after his arrest, Minassian announced that the ‘incel rebellion has already begun’ and ‘all the Chads and Stacys’ (sexually attractive men and women) would be overthrown. In that post, Minassian praised Elliot Rodger, a 22-year-old American who killed six and injured a further 14 in 2014, before taking his own life. Rodger wrote an incel manifesto in which he raged about being sexually frustrated and vowed to take revenge on the women who wouldn’t sleep with him. (To read more, click here.)
The former education secretary, Justine Greening, has urged firms to discriminate against applicants from Eton on the grounds that it is easier to get good A level grades if you’ve been to Eton rather than a comprehensive. There are several odd things about her statement.
First, why single out Eton? In terms of A level passes at grade A or A, Eton is 12th in the independent school league table, behind Westminster, Wycombe Abbey, St Paul’s and City of London School for Girls, among others. Cardiff Sixth Form College is top, with 91.9 per cent of its students gaining A or A in their A levels last year. I guess urging employers to discriminate against applicants from a sixth form in Cardiff wouldn’t have generated the same headlines. (To read more, click here.)
I’m currently gorilla-trekking in south-west Uganda, home to more than half of the world’s mountain gorillas, and having a wonderful time. The gorillas themselves are nothing like the way they’re depicted in popular culture – they are gentle and placid, like oversized koala bears. As I crouched in a glade in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, watching a family play together, I realised the Planet of the Apes films have got it back to front. In real life, it’s the chimps that are aggressive and testy. Gorillas are stately and wise.
I’m not entirely comfortable with the whole concept of eco-tourism. There is no reason why a person cannot be a passionate conservationist and care deeply about the abject poverty of sub-Saharan Africa, but the two don’t always go hand-in-hand. (To read more, click here.)
How easy is it to reinvent yourself? I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’ve had to give up a succession of educational roles following a media storm about things I said on Twitter more than five years ago. Some people have advised me to ‘do a Profumo’, a reference to the disgraced Conservative politician who rehabilitated himself by devoting his life to charity. But that doesn’t seem to be an option in my case. I had to give up the voluntary work I was doing when my old tweets were dug up, for fear of embroiling the charities I was involved with in the scandal.
My sister suggested I become a teacher, which is quite appealing. I could sign up with Now Teach, the organisation started by the former Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway for people in their forties and fifties who want to retrain as teachers. Lucy certainly seems to be enjoying her own reinvention as a maths teacher. Unfortunately, I think I’m too toxic for any school to take on. In the current climate, the taint of having sent a few tasteless tweets is too great. (To read more, click here.)
Monday was ‘national offer day’, which means that more than half a million parents across England were notified about which primary school their child got into. For most, the news was good, with nine in ten parents securing a place at one of their top three choices. But for some — particularly in London — the offer letters brought disappointment. In Kensington and Chelsea, for instance, just 68.3 per cent got their first choice of school. Not surprising, then, that parents have been resorting to fraud.
In some cases, desperate parents end up spending so much money to game the system it would be cheaper to go private. Mumsnet commissioned a poll which found that 18 per cent of parents admit to buying or renting a house in the catchment area of their preferred school. That can backfire, of course. According to a story on the front page of the Times in 2016, the school in England with the smallest catchment area is Fox Primary in Notting Hill, with parents needing to live within 107 yards of the front gate. Not many can afford to rent or buy in Notting Hill, where the average house price is more than £3 million, but anyone who did so to get their child into Fox’s this year will be disappointed. The school’s governors were so concerned about its privileged intake that they have introduced a lottery-based admissions policy. (To read more, click here.)
Writing about the link between genes and educational attainment can be dangerous, as the psychologist Arthur Jensen discovered. After publishing a paper in the Harvard Education Review in 1969 entitled ‘How much can we boost IQ and scholastic achievement?’ he was compared to Hitler and, for a time, had to be accompanied to work by bodyguards. Last year, the political scientist Charles Murray, who addressed this subject in The Bell Curve, was attacked by a group of student protestors at Middlebury College and a female colleague who tried to protect him ended up in hospital.
Jensen and Murray both strayed on to the live rail of black-white IQ differences, but even those who steer well clear of that can get into difficulty. At the beginning of the year, I was accused of being a ‘Nazi’ after an article I’d written for an Australian magazine in 2015 about the deepening link between IQ and socio-economic status was dug up. My sin was to include a solution to this problem that I labelled ‘progressive eugenics’. It was a million miles away from what is commonly understood by ‘eugenics’, but few people bothered to read the piece. The fact that I’d used the E word was enough to damn me. ‘With his views on eugenics, why does Toby Young still have a job in education?’ thundered Polly Toynbee in the Guardian. A few weeks later I didn’t.
So kudos to the science journalist Philip Ball for daring to venture into this territory. He’s written a long piece in the New Statesman entitled ‘The IQ trap: how the new genetics could transform education’ that, among other things, talks about the rapid progress that has been made in the last 12 months in identifying the genetic markers linked with intelligence via genome-wide association studies (GWAS). These studies, often involving hundreds of thousands of people, aim to identify loci throughout the genome associated with an observed trait, such as the number of years spent in full-time education. This is an exciting development since, until recently, behavioural scientists had to rely on family studies, twin studies and adoption studies to demonstrate that differences in general cognitive ability are linked to genetic differences. Soon they will be able to point to actual genetic variants (tens of thousands of them) that explain more than 10 per cent of the variance in IQ – expected to rise to 30 per cent as the datasets get larger. These findings make it nigh on impossible for anyone to claim that intelligence differences are all to do with nurture and nothing to do with nature. Blank slate fundamentalists are beginning to look more and more like flat-earthers. (To read more, click here.)
According to new research published in Advances in Physiology Education, men tend to significantly overestimate their own intelligence whereas women only marginally overestimate theirs. The architect of this study, Katelyn Cooper, a doctoral student at Arizona State University, believes this helps explain why fewer women embark on PhDs in the life sciences and why there are fewer tenured female professors in STEM fields. She also thinks it partly explains why women are less likely to rise to the top of their chosen professions.
I’m not so sure about that, but first a mea culpa. I used to think I was smarter than my wife. However, after being married to Caroline for more than 16 years I’m finding it harder and harder to cling on to this illusion. For instance, she’s much better than me at Scrabble. I initially told myself she was just lucking out, drawing better tiles than me, but that excuse had a limited shelf-life. I then thought it was because she’d had more practice than me. She had played it with her parents growing up, after all, and knew lots of fiendish little words like Qi. But over time, as I got more practice, that excuse began to fade too. I now refuse to play with her, saying I find Scrabble ‘boring’. That also applies to Boggle and Bananagram and — surprise, surprise — any games that are a test of raw intelligence. (To read more, click here.)
Something very odd occurred at a funeral I attended last week — somebody died. I don’t mean the person who was being buried. They had died a few days earlier, obviously. I mean one of the mourners passed away during the service. That was shocking in its own right, but what made it surreal is that the other mourners carried on as if nothing had happened.
The funeral took place in the deceased’s garden, where her family had arranged for her to be buried, and at the conclusion of the service someone announced that wine and food would be served. The 100 or so people in attendance formed a queue at the kitchen door and started chatting among themselves. Meanwhile, the poor woman who had died was flat out on the grass behind them. (To read more, click here.)