A paper published last week in an academic journal called npj Science of Learning attracted an unusual amount of press attention. It looked at the GCSE results of 4,814 students at three different types of school — comprehensives, private schools and grammars — and found that once you factor in IQ, prior attainment, parental socio-economic status and a range of genetic markers, the type of school has virtually no effect on academic attainment. Less than 1 per cent of the variance in these children’s GCSE results was due to school type.
I should declare an interest, since I was one of several co-authors, along with the distinguished behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin — who first announced his findings about the heritability of GCSE results in The Spectator in 2013 — although I had a very minor role. The researcher who deserves the lion’s share of the credit is Emily Smith-Woolley. (To read more, click here.)
I’m currently in Israel on a press trip organised by Bicom — the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre. Bicom does a good job of getting experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to give talks to journalists and I’ve attended a few in their London offices. But this is the first time I’ve been on one of their legendary excursions to the Holy Land, which they organise about six times a year. In essence, you’re given a whistle-stop tour of the country while being briefed at every turn by senior ministers and officials on both sides of the divide. It’s seventh heaven for foreign policy nerds, but I also have another reason for being here, which is to weigh up the pros and cons of emigrating to Israel.
Believe it or not, my entire family is eligible for citizenship under the Law of Return because Caroline’s father is Jewish. And the idea of moving here is genuinely appealing because I’ve been fanatically pro-Israel since falling in love with the place aged 17. I had just failed all my O-levels and was mooning about feeling like an outcast when my father decided to send me to a kibbutz. It turned out to be the perfect antidote to my adolescent funk. (To read more, click here.)
My nine-year-old son Charlie and I are doing a 10-mile walk from QPR’s football stadium to Fulham’s football stadium on Saturday 17th March to raise money for the QPR Tiger Cubs, a team of adults, young people and children with Downs Syndrome. Please make a donation if you can. Link is here. Thanks in advance.
Last Saturday was shaping up to be one of the best days of my life. Freddie, my ten-year-old son, had been chosen by Queens Park Rangers, our football team, as one of five ‘Local Heroes’ to be honoured at half-time — part of the club’s excellent ‘QPR in the Community’ programme. This was on account of his charity work, believe it or not.
After seeing the club’s Game4Grenfell, a pro-celebrity football game organised to raise money for those affected by the Grenfell Tower fire, Freddie was inspired to organise a football-and-netball tournament for under-11s at Club des Sports in Acton. With the help of his mother, he managed to raise £3,250 for the same cause. (To read more, click here.)
Amy Chua’s latest book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, is a difficult read for anyone who is concerned about the current state of British politics. Chua is an American law professor and her previous book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, was about the effectiveness of the Asian approach to bringing up children. In that book, she praised her own parents for giving her a sense of pride in her Chinese heritage, claiming that one of the reasons Asian-Americans are more successful than other ethnic groups is because they feel that to fail would bring shame on their community. In Political Tribes, she takes a different tack, arguing that the ascendancy of identity politics on the right and the left of American politics is threatening to destroy the Republic.
Before discussing the rise of tribalism in the US, she devotes a chapter to Hugo Chavez’s electoral success in Venezuela and attributes it, in part, to the fact that he wasn’t a member of the country’s light-skinned social and political elite. For years, educated Venezuelans maintained that racism didn’t exist in their country because everyone is a mestizo — mixed blood. However, that ignores the fact that Venezuelans of African and indigenous heritage are, for the most part, poorer and less successful than Venezuelans of European heritage, a form of hierarchy known as sociedad de castas. (To read more, click here.)
For parents of primary school children, the first Thursday in March has got to be the worst day of the year. Even an attendance Nazi like me, who won’t countenance any excuse for keeping a child home from school, would accept that on this occasion a ‘tummy ache’ is a perfectly legitimate reason. Why do I say this? Because the first Thursday of March is World Book Day.
Now, for those of you without children, or whose children went to school before this annual ritual was invented by Unesco in 1995, I should explain that the reason it’s such a colossal bore is because parents are expected to mark the occasion by sending their offspring to school dressed as their favourite fictional character. That might sound harmless enough, but for status-conscious middle-class parents such as Caroline and me it’s a complete nightmare.
The problem begins when your child insists on going to school in a superhero costume, rather than a character from Winnie-the-Pooh or The Wind in the Willows. As the father of three boys, I have had this argument so many times I can recite it in my sleep. Yes, Charlie, I know Superman is cool, but it’s World Book Day, not World Comic Day. No, Freddie, graphic novels don’t count so I’m afraid you can’t go as Batman from The Dark Knight Returns even though it’s technically a ‘book’. Sorry, Ludo, if you wear a Black Panther costume you’ll be accused of ‘cultural appropriation’. (To read more, click here.)
I’ve become obsessed with my BMI. For those of you who don’t know, it stands for body mass index and is supposed to be a more reliable way of assessing whether you’re a healthy size than weighing yourself. It’s calculated by dividing your weight by the square of your height and is expressed as kg/m². If your BMI is under 18.5 kg/m² you’re underweight, if it’s over 25 kg/m² you’re overweight, and if it’s above 30 kg/m² you’re obese. The sweet spot is anywhere between 18.5 kg/m² and 25 kg/m².
As regular readers will know, I’m on a diet. At the beginning of the year I was nearly 13st and I’m trying to get down to 11st 7lb. So far, so good, with only 4lb left to go. But infuriatingly, my BMI stubbornly refuses to dip under 25 kg/m², so I’m still technically overweight. At least, that’s what my fancy new Nokia Body+ scale tells me. I bought this scale because, in addition to recording your BMI alongside your weight, it syncs with various apps on my phone and enables you to track your weight loss —which I’ve been doing every minute of the day. There’s one in particular called MyFitnessPal that I stare at almost continuously. (To read more, click here.)
I’m often surprised by what people are offended by. Like the makers of Peter Rabbit, the new animated feature from Sony Pictures, I could not have predicted that a scene in which Peter and his friends pelt another character with blackberries in the hope of triggering an allergic reaction would provoke a storm of protest. Yet that is what has happened. A petition demanding an apology has attracted thousands of signatures, a charity called Kids with Food Allergies has condemned the film as ‘harmful to our community’ and #boycottpeterrabbit started trending on Twitter shortly after the film was released in America.
I wonder how many people objecting to this scene have actually seen the film? Do they realise that the character being subjected to the blackberry barrage is Tom McGregor, nephew of Mr McGregor? As anyone familiar with Beatrix Potter will know, Peter and his friends were terrorised by Mr McGregor, who tried to catch them so he could bake them in a pie, the fate that befell Peter’s father. Surely, if you’re trapped in a walled garden with the nephew of a notorious serial killer – a young man who is trying to kill you and, for all you know, eat you – it’s morally acceptable to exploit his weakness in order to escape? I would have thought that inducing anaphylaxis is well within the rules of engagement in such a situation. After all, it won’t actually kill you provided you have an EpiPen to hand, which, as it happens, Tom McGregor does in this version of the story. (To read more, click here.)
I have a confession to make: I’m a yo-yo dieter. For the past ten years, I’ve lost a bit of weight in January and then spent the rest of the year putting it back on. Problem is, I’ve been adding more than I’ve been taking away, with the result that at the end of last year I was 12st 13lb. That might not sound like much to the average Spectator reader, but I’m a bit of a short-arse — 5ft 8½in if you must know (and, yes, I’m aware that adding that ½ is a bit tragic). That meant my body mass index was 27, which, according to the World Health Organisation, is officially overweight.
In one of Clive James’s books of memoirs — volume two, I think — he wrote that you don’t gradually become fat. Rather, you just wake up one day and discover you’re a fat person. That’s how I felt on 1 January. It didn’t help that I had stupidly bought my only good suit in the sales more than a year ago when I was a svelte 12st. Fastening the top button of my trousers involved sucking in my stomach and then hoping nothing went pop when I breathed out. I felt like a sack of potatoes with a rubber band round the middle. (To read more, click here.)
When I tell my children about my own childhood, they often express disbelief about how wretched it was. No Xbox? No YouTube? No Snapchat? What on earth did I do with myself? But the thing they cannot get their heads around is that I had only three television channels to choose from. They live in a world in which practically every TV series ever made is available at the click of a mouse —and because they’ve always lived in that world they have no trouble navigating the dizzying array. They binge on certain shows — Merlin, Modern Family, The IT Crowd — and dip in and out of others, but it never feels as if they care that much. It’s more as if they’re selecting background music while they do something else — and they often are doing something else, such as communicating with their friends on their phones.
By contrast, I attach a huge amount of significance to what I watch and I think that’s because of the meagre television diet I had to subsist on as a child. On Fridays after school in 1973, your choice was limited to Record Breakers on BBC One or Lost in Space on ITV and because those were the only two options — BBC Two was given over to the Open University — you could classify people according to which one they preferred. I was a Lost in Space person, obviously, and friendship groups were, in part, based on what your favourite programmes were. I don’t think I had a single friend who watched Blue Peter. If someone admitted to liking Blue Peter it was a sign that they were a goody two-shoes, a country mouse.