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"Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice" - Adam Smith

Testing, testing. A, B, C.

Written by Tom Bowman | Monday 19 November 2007

Mother & Child ReadingThe Conservative Party’s latest idea on ensuring that all children are able to read by the age of seven is noble. Yet they’ve once again slipped into the idea of measuring standards through centrally set testing. For the vast majority of children in Britain they face repeated testing throughout their days at school, and most of this is merely for the whim of the politicians.

As Michael Gove MP told the Andrew Marr Show on the BBC: "We want to introduce a simple test which means at the end of two years of primary school we know whether or not children have mastered the skills they need to read.” It is rather shocking to read that a Conservative MP wants to know whether a child can read or not. This type of nannying interference is typical of the politics of the moment, and as an opposition party the conservatives should be offering an alternative not aping it. The over emphasis on the state to monitor (by turning the exam and test results into statistics) the development of children has removed this role from the parents. The most important people in a child’s education are its parents and they need to become more involved and not further alienated.

The Conservatives should be focusing on removing the state from the lives of children and allowing the teachers the freedom to teach the children in their care how they best see fit. It is noticeable, after all, that children are not only different but they develop and learn at a range of speeds. A teacher should be endowed with a wide range of skills so that these disparities are equalised in the way the children are taught.

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Of teachers and tenure

Written by Rachel Patterson | Tuesday 27 November 2007

The New York Times ran an article a few days ago lamenting the decline of tenure track positions in American universities. While frustratingly indicative of a fall in teacher quality and a high turnover of part time and non-tenure-track university professors, advocates forget that a high number of tenured professors probably will not improve teacher quality.

Teacher’s unions fight for tenure because it supplies the ultimate job protection; after teaching for a given number of years a teacher simply cannot be fired. Visiting professors might only stay for the year but can carry the hope and the incentive to do well, in case they might be offered a tenure-track position. Tenure-track professors will work hard too because they are faced with the incentive of increasing their rank and achieving job security. Tenured professors, on the other hand, have lost all incentive to perform at a high level. University professors are also different from teachers in lower education; many, especially at larger institutions, enter the profession not because of a drive to teach, but often because they had completed advanced study in an area and needed a job. Once offered tenure, these professors might stop teaching all together in favour of their research or publications.

Adam Smith said that teachers must have proper incentives of pay and job security in order to properly instruct students; anyone whose pay is not linked to their work will necessarily under-perform. The ability for improvement and the threat of pay cuts improve any profession, and teaching is no different. Professors must always have opportunities to advance, not a position which completely removes the incentives to do their job well.

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On the seventh day of Christmas...

Written by Dr Eamonn Butler | Monday 31 December 2007

My true love sent to me: seven swans a-swimming. In the song, this could refer to the seven sacraments, or the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, which include things like teaching, service, and leadership.

Teaching, of course, is another of those things where there is far too much government, and far too little service and leadership. As in health, it is not that the staff are bad - but they are just badly managed, and the sector is too centrally run. The top-down Stalinist way of running things didn't deliver in the Soviet Union, and it doesn't deliver in health, education, and other public services. So we end up with sink schools from which parents and kids - usually those in the most deprived areas - have no escape.

Now, though, the world is building up experience that decentralization actually works. Instead of the state running every school, give parents and teachers money to run their own. That has led to a flowering of new schools in poor, often black areas of America where the state schools had been overwhelmed with drugs and violence and underwhelmed with learning and achievement. Now Sweden has a similar system - the money follows the choices of parents, not bureaucrats, so it tends to be spent better: and all sorts of new education providers are springing up as a result. A model for the UK? Well, we certainly think so.

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And another thing...

Written by Junksmith | Wednesday 06 February 2008

According to a survey of 3,000 people commissioned by UKTV Gold, a satellite TV channel, Britons are increasingly confusing fact and fiction when it comes to their historical knowledge. While 58 percent believed Sherlock Holmes was a real historical figure, 23 percent believed Sir Winston Churchill was fictional.

On seeing the results of this survey I assumed that I had overslept and woken up on April 1st but, alas, no. It appears to have been a real survey of real people – something which, humour aside, is very worrying indeed.

Education reform, anyone?

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Pay up or spin out

Written by Jessica May | Wednesday 13 February 2008

The future of medicine lies in the hands of researchers, doctors, and most importantly – private funders.

Imperial College London's Institute of Biomedical Engineering (IBE) was founded in 2004, the first of its kind in the UK. Recently profiled in the Financial Times, it serves as a model for other institutions. Gone is the day that University researchers fear commercial involvement in their work, for as the FT put it:

IBE staff have been enterprising not only in spinning out companies – seven so far – but also in raising money to build and run a postgraduate research institute at the heart of Imperial's South Kensington campus. A particularly innovative feature of IBE's £28m fundraising was the £10m invested by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, a charity that focuses on culture, education and the environment.

Although this foundation is a charity, the investment was purely commercial. In return, any future spin-outs or licensed agreements have a portion returning to the Foundation. Rather than relying on government funding to raise money for big capital projects, some universities also have similar deals with financial institutions.

Successful biomedical engineering programs require excellent medical schools and engineering programmes – and also private funding. This is exactly what the Johns Hopkins University has, and being the top BME programme in the US with nine spin-out companies, one can see why.

The Whitaker Foundation, established in 1976, supported the enhancement or establishment of educational programmes in biomedical engineering, especially encouraging the formation of departments. Over 30 years it has given $805 million in funding to institutions like Johns Hopkins. It is private donations such as these have made the US a world leader in this field.

Oxford University has recently launched its own IBE with a similar structure of private funding. As an alumnus of Johns Hopkins BME and a current Imperial IBE student, I’ve benefited from this structure. Other universities should follow suit and create similar opportunities, allowing a higher standard of education for more students.

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Those who can, do...

Written by Tim Worstall | Thursday 14 February 2008

...Those who can't, teach.

Sir Roderick Floud, former vice-president of the European University
Association, said the UK was a clear market leader in higher education
in Europe, which by 2010 would offer a potential market of one billion
people as a result of the Bologna Agreement, designed to unify higher
education systems across the continent.

find it completely extraordinary and short-sighted that British
universities are so well represented in recruitment terms in south Asia
and the Far East, and so badly represented in the rest of Europe,"
Floud told the Guardian's Higher Education summit in London.

As Sir Roderick recently (March 2006) retired as President of London Metropolitan University, his surprise is. umm, surprising. The reason universities try to recruit overseas students is because they can charge them lots of money for attending their elite insitutions. Domestically sourced students have their charges capped...and one part of the delights of the European Union is that students from other parts of the EU are to be treated as domesticaly sourced. Thus they can only be charged the (c.) £3,100 a year that a Brit would pay while someone from South Asia or the Far East might pay £11,000 or so.

These fees from overseas students have in fact been the lifeblood of the entire sector for some years now: possibly a third of the entire fee income of the whole higher education sector. This isn't extraordinary nor is it short-sighted: it's simple economic rationality.

A market of one billion people in a population of just under 500 million also looks a bit of a stretch.

So does the phrase finish with "those who can't teach, administrate"? 


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High culture in schools

Written by Tom Bowman | Friday 15 February 2008

national_gallery.jpgI imagine that many reacted as I did to the news that a minimum of five hours of high culture is to be included in schools. These ministers come and go, making these announcements as they pass, but little happens on the ground. I wonder if these 5 hours will come before or after the compulsory 3 hours of sport previously promised (but not happened)? Or maybe they'll come after the compulsory cookery hours to be introduced? Perhaps they could be fitted around the promised lessons in "What it means to be British."

Ministers and bureaucrats sit at the centre signing pieces of paper to commit schools to each popular fancy, while hapless teachers shudder and groan at each straw added to an already over-burdened and top-heavy curriculum. Then the fuss dies down, the gloss wears off, and there are no more column inches to be gained, so the initiative is quietly forgotten.

Isn't there a case for giving teachers more discretion in this? Shouldn't head-teachers draw up proposals and put them to parents to see what they think of them? Couldn't education be decentralized so that local schools could offer an education they thought suitable. That way lies parental choice, with the money following the child. That way lies the transformation of education from a monolithic state system into one which tailors itself to the needs of parents and children and the talents of teachers.

In the meantime, would anyone care to guess what the next ministerial initiative will add to the school timetable?

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A political disaster

Written by Dr Eamonn Butler | Tuesday 04 March 2008

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the UK's new school admissions policy, it will be a political disaster.

At present, middle class parents get their kids into good state schools by moving into the catchment areas of the best ones. So the plan is to allocate school places by lottery rather than catchment, so that poorer parents have an equal chance (and so that schools would get a wider social mix too).

While the parents whose kids get into good schools under this scheme will be pleased, they won't exactly be marching on City Hall to express their pleasure. But the middle-class parents whose kids don't get into nearby good schools will be absolutely furious, and campaigning in their thousands. And poorer parents whose kids don't get into their preferred nearby school will be marching alongside them.

And whatever the merits of the policy, its inevitable result is that kids will have to travel longer distances to get to school. That means they are going to be walking or cycling greater distances along busy streets, and (come winter) more are going to get killed or injured. Already there is a spike in road fatalities around the age of eleven, when kids transfer from their neighbourhood primary schools to the more distant secondary schools. The first case of a kid being killed on one of these forced cycle trips will get the media, and parents, baying for ministers' blood.

A better policy would focus on incentivizing state schools to improve, not rationing them by throwing dice. For some ideas, ministers should check here.

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Time for a change

Written by Tom Bowman | Friday 21 March 2008

educationpic1.jpgAccording to a report in the Times, "soaring numbers of parents are lying about where they live to get their children into leading schools." It's hardly surprising. Almost twenty percent of children are denied a place at their first choice of school. In some parts of London, that figure rises to fifty percent. Few things will be as important to a parent as getting their child into the right school, so it's little wonder they are prepared to lie. The tragedy is that we have a system which forces them to do it.

Britain has a severe shortage of good school places, which means children frequently have no option but to be assigned to a school by their Local Education Authority (LEA), even if its quality is low.

There are two reasons for this shortage. The first is the 'surplus-places policy' which prevents popular schools from expanding if there are unfilled places in another local school. That's like the government preventing a good restaurant from laying more tables, because the bad restaurant next door has spare places. The second reason is that it is very difficult for people outside the public sector to establish new schools to meet demand.

Sweden does not have these problems. There, parents can send their children to any school of their choice (whether state or private) and these schools are eligible for government funding on a per-pupil basis. Good schools expand, poor schools close and, crucially, new schools are easy to establish. They just have to meet a few basic requirements: they must not charge additional fees, and must accept pupils on a first-come-first-served basis.  The latter requirement rarely has to be invoked, however, since most children now find places in their first choice school.

The UK school system is plainly in need of a radical overhaul. See our report Open Access for UK Schools for more.

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What would we like in a school system?

Written by Tim Worstall | Sunday 25 May 2008

Seriously, start with a blank page and ask yourself what we actually desire in a school system? This would be a good start of course:

The country that came top of the Unicef report and did consistently well in the international league tables was...

Yes, all in favour of that, being one of the best in the world means that you're at least doing things better than many, perhaps as well as it can actually be done.

But what it really means is that parents don't snare themselves in mortgages to get into catchment areas they can't afford, or pay expensive school fees or face the humiliation of having to rediscover a lapsed faith.

Yes, that sounds like something to be desired as well: not having to face financial ruin simply to educate the ankle-biters would appeal to most.

There is choice though, and ... children are in the upper quartile of the international tables, which might help explain why the ... is rated as the best place for a child to grow up in the developed world.

Oh, my, yes, that does sound like a good idea. So, how is this done then? What's the magic secret here? Clearly it's going to cost a fortune, yes?

If we want better schools for our children we need to spend more money, don't we? Well actually, no.(....) The surprising answer is that their results have nothing to do with money – in fact, they're spending quite a lot less than we are.

Really? Better schools, better education, the best place in the world to grow up, and it costs less money? Where? How?

They can choose whichever school will suit their child best. Not all parents make an active choice but enough do to influence the standard of schools everywhere. All this is based on the fact that parental choice in education is a part of the Dutch constitution. It assumes that one size does not fit all.

Yes, it's Holland, the Netherlands. The how is that they have a variation of the voucher system that we argue for here at the ASI. The parents choose the school, any one of them that they wish subject to minimal licencing requirements and the government pays the bills. Yes, top up fees are allowed, parents making that decision for themselves as well. We might also note that the Netherlands is a great deal more egalitarian than the UK and I wouldn't be surprised to find out that it has greater social mobility as well (for those who worry about such things).

Engineers have a saying that you can have "better, faster, cheaper, pick any two" for you can't have all three. But it appears that we run our current education system so appallingly badly that we can indeed make it better, fairer and cheaper.

So why is there anyone at all who opposes such voucher systems?

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