One of the shortcomings of being an “education guru”, as I like to style myself, is that it can leave you feeling rather anxious about your own children’s progress. As a father of four I have lost count of the times that I have stumbled across some research paper only to think: “Blimey! I’m a really rubbish parent.”
Take “summer learning loss”, one of the most robust findings in the literature. Numerous research studies have shown that children lose, in aggregate, one month of schooling over the course of the summer holidays. In maths the average loss is 2.6 months. That is to say, when children return to school at the end of the holidays they are 2.6 months behind the point that they were when the school broke up.
Admittedly these figures are based on research carried out in America, where the long vacation lasts from mid-June to early September, so the average loss here won’t be as great. However, British schoolchildren still suffer compared with their counterparts in some of the world’s highest-performing school regions, such as Hong Kong, where the summer holidays are only four weeks long. Children in the UK attend school on average for 190 days a year, compared to an OECD average of 195 and an east Asian average of 208.
The reason this discovery left me feeling like a crap dad is because for years I was in the habit of leaving my children to their own devices during the holidays. (To read more, click here.)
Twenty-one years ago, in October 1996, I had the unenviable task of persuading Tony Blair to pose for Vanity Fair, the society magazine where I was working as a contributing editor. This was for the famous Cool Britannia issue in March 1997, celebrating Britain’s moment as the cultural capital of the world, and the editor-in-chief, Graydon Carter, was determined to get the youthful Labour leader of the opposition in the magazine before he was swept to power. Unfortunately, Blair’s deputy press secretary, Tim Allen, was unconvinced.
“Shouldn’t you be asking John Major?” he said. “Why should Tony help you publicise this phenomenon when it’s happened on his rival’s watch?”
He was right to be sceptical. (To read more, click here.)
For our 16th wedding anniversary, Caroline and I went to the Almeida Theatre to see Ink, a new play about Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of the Sun in 1969 and the subsequent circulation war with the Daily Mirror. It is terrifically funny, brimming with comic characters and acerbic one-liners, as you would expect from writer James Graham, perhaps best known for This House, his play about the five-year duel between the Labour and Conservative whips during the period 1974-79. Ink is due to transfer to the Duke of York’s Theatre on 9 September and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
One of the things that struck me as the Murdoch character prowls the stage, laying out his plans for world domination, is how similar he is to Jeremy Corbyn. I don’t just mean in the obvious ways — privately educated, married numerous times, roughly the same age. I mean politically, too. Many of Murdoch’s best lines, particularly those in which he rails against the Establishment, could easily be delivered by the Labour leader. For Murdoch, the force he wants to unleash to bring down the ruling class is untrammelled capitalism, whereas for Corbyn it is organised labour. But they share a visceral contempt for the English class system and the sclerotic institutions and traditions that underpin it. (To read more, click here.)
As a Game of Thrones fan, I feel ambivalent about the fact that the saga is finally wending its way to a conclusion. The latest season, which debuted on Sunday, is the last series but one; there will only be a total of 13 episodes across both. On the one hand, I feel sad about the fact that a television series that has given me so much pleasure is coming to an end. But I’m also a little relieved.
At times, following the sprawling cast of characters and multiple story-lines has felt a bit too much like hard work. The past few seasons have become bogged down as the writers have dutifully charted the fates of minor figures such as Tommen Baratheon, an almost supernaturally boring princeling. I often found myself having to Google who the characters are just to keep track of them. The overarching storyline inched forward at a snail’s pace and the series began to take on a soapy quality — a drama without a proper engine. (To read more, click here.)
Listen to James Dellingpole and me talk about the first episode of season 7 of Game of Thrones. Among the issues we discuss: Do we detect signs of political correctness sneaking into the GoT universe? Is 'Winter is coming' a metaphor for global warming? Will Jon Snow and the Mother of Dragons end up getting married? Is Sansa's transformation from victim to warrior princess plausible? And what the hell was Ed Sheeran doing in there? (To listen to the podcast, click here.)
Fifteen years ago, when I was The Spectator’s drama critic, Caroline used to complain that she had become a ‘theatre widow’. I was spending at least three nights a week in the West End while she was cooped up at home. Occasionally, I was able to persuade her to come with me, but most of the time she just made a face: ‘I’d love to accompany you to the musical version of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, but unfortunately I have an unbreakable appointment with the sofa and the TV set.’
Well, she has her revenge. Caroline is captain of the Park Club Ladies Second Team and if she hasn’t got a match or a tournament, she’s doing ‘drills’ or playing in the ‘social’. I’m lucky if I only have to spend three evenings a week on my own. During peak season it has been known to go as high as five, and at the weekends I don’t see her for dust. I’m now a ‘tennis widower’. (To read more, click here.)
On the front page of today’s Times it says ministers are thinking of scrapping the free schools policy in order to give more money to schools. I hope it’s not true. Not only would it constitute a terrible loss of self-confidence on the Government’s part and confirm the narrative that the Conservatives are enacting Labour’s manifesto rather than their own. It would also be a betrayal of the thousands of people who’ve set up free schools and are in the process of setting them up. We have taken on the educational establishment and put our necks on the line at the behest of successive Conservative Education Secretaries. Are they really going to abandon us now?
It would be particularly insane to throw the policy out the window at this point as it is just beginning to bear fruit. Free schools are more likely to be rated Outstanding by Ofsted than council-run schools, more popular with parents and getting better results. To give just one example, the King’s College London Mathematics School, a free school in Kennington, topped a new league table published last week showing A level results in STEM subjects. (To read more, click here.)
Is diversity training snake oil? According to its proponents, women and minorities are not competing with white men on a level playing field when it comes to career advancement because of the ‘unconscious bias’ of their white male colleagues. The solution, if you’re the CEO of a large company, is to pay a ‘diversity consultant’ to train your managers to recognise and eliminate this bias. In America, it’s an $8-billion-a-year industry, yet a recent study in Australia suggests that, whatever is holding back women and minorities, it isn’t unconscious bias.
The Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian government has just published the results of a randomised control trial involving 21,000 employees of the Australian Public Service to see if the introduction of ‘blind recruiting’ would help promote gender equality and diversity. The employees were asked to shortlist candidates for a managerial position, with half of them being given their names and other identity markers and the other half not. If these public servants were suffering from unconscious bias, you would expect the ‘blindfolded’ group to be more likely to shortlist female and minority candidates and less likely to shortlist white men. In fact, the reverse happened. (To read more, click here.)