Monday, September 17, 2007

Friday, September 14, 2007

Rat-arsed Drunks and the NHS

Via Duncan Borrowman comes some unusually direct political language from Norman Lamb, Lib Dem spokesman on health.
"If you go out on a Friday or a Saturday night and get very drunk and you end up in accident and emergency, and you are foul and abusive to staff who are already overstretched, then is it right that you should get that care entirely for free, or are there consequences to your actions? "And I think there is a case for saying that someone in those circumstances should be asked to pay for their care."

Now, Duncan rightly makes the points that there are laws to deal with abusive drunks, and the consequences for such actions - in particular, being foul and abusive to staff going about their work, should be dealt with via the justice system.

There is a deeper issue here, though, which is the fact that the conscious actions of the binge drinkers are leading to a costly strain on the National Health Service - ultimately, they are placing a strain on all of us, as it is tax money that deals with the problems of drinking to excess. Is it right that such behaviour - particularly if it is repeated, or obstructs the access to service of those who are ill through no fault of their own (as would be the case if staff are facing abuse) - should ultimately be met through the taxpayer, rather than the person who has caused the problem?

That, of course, is how the system works in theory. For everyone who buys a pint of beer or a glass of wine pays a specific duty on that. Presumably the rationale for this is that it is a hypothecated contribution towards the larger problems that spring from the consumption of alcohol. There may be a rationale for making that contribution higher - a sliding scale based on strength of beer, perhaps? - but as things stand, those being foul and abusive already do pay for the cost.

Under this system, of course, those who drink responsibly and those who drink to excess are punished equally for the decisions of the latter. Is that fair? Not by any construction I can come up with. (The fact that richer people subsidise the healthcare of the poor is justifiable by the social good that it brings about. Subsidising violent or abusive behaviour doesn't bring much good that I can see). One of the reasons for the costs of the NHS is because we are encouraged to think that free healthcare, for anything, is a right, on demand. Regardless of personal agency in the problems that are caused. In any case like this, there's a fine line to be walked. How exactly do you define which problems should be charged and which shouldn't?

I don't have answers to these questions off the top of my head. But there is an important case to be argued here. The NHS shouldn't be expected to bail people out at no cost for injuries caused by knowingly drinking to excess. And those who have put themselves in such a position should at least appreciate the service being provided. Expecting the NHS to provide full cover for everything is ultimately economically unviable. Norman Lamb may well have identified one of the cases where we shouldn't automatically provide.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Where Were You?

Do you remember where you were when the planes hit the Twin Towers?

I certainly do. I was in a history lesson in my last year of A-Levels. I didn't hear the news for another hour or so, when friends came into my next class. Almost every classroom around the school was at that point turning on its TVs, to be greeted with the sight of the first tower collapsing into the ground. What had seemed so certain an hour earlier had turned into a mass of rubble and dust in just a few seconds.

An hour later, I was picked up from school as usual, and went home to watch the news, in a state of shock and fear. What was coming next? A year which at the start of the day seemed full of hope and excitement as I embarked on the last year of my high school career ended with the world seeming a more evil, more unsafe place.

That is only one of millions of stories that could be told, though. My history teacher, who in that lesson had been discussing his trip to New York over the summer with us, spent the next hour running around desperately trying to contact the friends he had stayed with to make sure they were alright. Another teacher clearly hadn't heard the news with the rest of us, when he told me to cheer up as we passed walking around the grounds. One friend told me that his father was worried for he was about to enter a business deal with a company based at the World Trade Center.

My point here is that all four of us were in pretty much the same place when we heard the news. Our instantaneous reaction to the inevitable question "Where were you?" would be the same. But our reactions were all coloured in different ways. Just like on the day of the London bombing, I found out the news in an internet cafe in Amsterdam, on holiday with my friend. His reaction, being a Londoner familiar with friends and family using the Tube on a regular basis was considerably different from mine. We both had the familiar emotions of shock, grief, sorrow for the terrible losses suffered. Pretending that we were united in those emotions, though, masks more than it reveals.

The sixth anniversary of 9/11 has seen the familiar outpouring of articles and blog posts commenting on how we should remember the anniversary. Many express the idea that life would be much better if we displayed the unity that was shown in the immediate aftermath of the outrages.

Yet in many ways, we weren't united. We all grieved, for the attacks are as horrible as we can imagine. What horrors those in the Towers saw that made them think jumping was a more rational choice than staying we can only shudder to think about. The use of an aeroplane as a bomb, trapping hundreds of innocents on a collision course with a building, is beyond the realms of any normal understanding. And there is something seriously wrong with anyone who does not feel anything other than sorrow and grief when contemplating the loss of children, parents, husbands and wives, friends and loved ones.

Our responses to a tragedy on the scale of 9/11 are determined by all kinds of factors - our personal connection to the events; our physical proximity to the tragedy; our familiarity with the means and places of attack. And those will ultimately determine our view of following reactions to those kinds of events - the more so with the passing of time.

It is of course only right that we should mark the anniversary of the outrages, and stop and pause to remember the lives of those who perished on 9/11 - those who were the innocent victims of a backwards ideology and those who gave their lives trying to save the lives of people they had never met.

As we pause and reflect on that day, though, we are all bringing our own perspectives to a collective act of remembrance. We will never show the same unity as we did on September 12th, because the things that made us think differently on September 11th are now more important in our minds than the shock and sorrow we felt at the time. The reaction to 9/11 was the reaction of millions of different individuals; in that sense, it is no wonder we view those events so differently now.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

It's the Politics, Stupid

The Republican Party in the US has been engulfed by sex scandals over the last couple of years. The trail started with the Mark Foley scandal, where the Republican Congressman was found to have sent sexually explicit messages to congressional pages. The big story in the last month has been about Idaho Senator Larry Craig, forced to resign having been caught soliciting sex in a Minneapolis toilet.

One story that you might not have come across, though, is that of Louisiana Senator David Vitter, implicated in the "DC Madam" story, and who has publicly admitted to having an extra-marital affair with a prostitute - having had his telephone number recorded as having been used for phone calls to the prostitute during roll call votes in the House of Representatives. The case is perhaps even more ironic when you consider that Vitter first became a Congressman when his predecessor resigned after a sex scandal.

Yet Republican Senators have lined up in support of Senator Vitter - the same Senators who were either silent or vocal in calling for Craig's resignation when that story broke. (There's another interesting parallel between the two cases, in that both Senators were important figures in Presidential campaigns - Craig for Mitt Romney; Vitter for Giuliani. Craig has been dropped from the campaign team, Vitter hasn't).

This has led some to suggest that it isn't a sex scandal that hangs a Republican out to dry. As long as you're having heterosexual sex, it's fine. Take this example from the Boston Globe:

Thus, the arrest of Craig, a forceful opponent of gay rights, for allegedly soliciting sex in a men's room stall, presented Republicans with a dilemma. The sordidness of Craig's alleged offense was deeply damaging to a party that had already suffered for having failed to expose the fact that former GOP lawmaker Mark Foley had sent lewd e-mails to male House pages.

However, the national party was still backing Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, who had acknowledged committing "serious sin" after his phone number allegedly appeared on a list provided by a Washington-area madam. Vitter's offense - which apparently involved a female prostitute - was less politically damaging than Craig's, based on home-state response.

Now, undoubtedly the irony of Craig's strong public stance against same-sex marriage contributed to the public interest in the story - and it was the prominent place it occupied in the news that contributed to the clamour for his resignation. While Vitter's conduct might not demonstrate the high morals expected of those in public office, it doesn't have so obvious a contradiction between public and private actions. (That said, phoning the DC Madam during roll call votes while on Capitol Hill does suggest a dereliction of public duty).

But there is a directly political explanation for the different reactions to the scandals, too. For Idaho is a solidly Republican state, with a Republican governor. And Craig's Senate seat is up for re-election in 2008. So when Craig resigns, the governor will appoint a temporary replacement - who will be a Republican, and thus maintain Republican numbers in the finely-balanced Senate (the Democrats have a 51-49 advantage, if you count the Independents who caucus with them; but in a system where the self-interest of the state can cause people to break ranks, it is barely enough to guarantee victory on any vote). And, more to the point, the new Senator, whoever he or she may be, will have the advantage of incumbency come 2008 - a significant advantage in a political system where name recognition seems to count for a lot. With a year's chance to get settled in, there is a good chance of making sure the shadow of Larry Craig does not loom over the next election.

Louisiana, on the other hand, has a Democrat Governor, Kathleen Blanco. Were Vitter to resign, she would appoint a Democrat to fill the vacancy until a special election was held in 2008 - thus ceding the incumbency advantage to the other party - and in a state where the outcome of a Senatorial election would be much in doubt. And that would be a waste of a valuable seat when there is no need to put it up for grabs until 2010 - by which point the scandal would be a distant memory. Even if it were to be brought up, there is another three years in which Vitter can bring up extra achievements to demonstrate his utility to the people of Louisiana.

It's very easy to be indignant about scandals when your party's political standing isn't on the line. Cut the dead wood adrift, and the Republicans can take a stand for morality whilst their power in the Senate remains the same. I think we might have seen more prepared to stand up in support of Larry Craig if he was Senator for a swing state. In Idaho, anyone can be a Senator if they're a Republican. In Louisiana, they can't. Larry Craig is an expendable friend; David Vitter isn't. That's why Craig went - regardless of the details of his sexual indiscretions.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Watching from Afar

Over the years, I have become accustomed to finding bizarre means of keeping in touch with major sporting events. I found myself acting in a school play during the England vs Argentina match in 1998, for example, and spent the time I wasn't on stage wandering around outside trying desperately to interpret the cheers and groans that were emanating from houses and pubs up and down the high street.

Friends at university still remember the time that I was cheering the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2003 NFC Championship whilst watching a helmet moving up and down a graphic image of an NFL gridiron. And I'm not sure the librarians in the American archive I was visiting in September 2005 ever quite understood why I was walking to the computer terminals every five minutes for an update on the latest score from The Oval.

Then again, when England won the Ashes, it was the only incidence of the three mentioned above where the team I was following actually won. To a certain extent, it is easy to follow something when your team is successful. It would be nicer to watch it in person, of course, but there's a pleasure to be derived from seeing a team you support win. It's much different when your team loses.

Part of the irrationality of sport comes from the fact that you feel that your support, in some way, can help your team win. I've certainly seen this happen. My local rugby team, for example, has come from behind in a number of matches I've watched, and you could see them lifted by the roar of support that came from the fans. But that, of course, is when I was there in person.

Just because I'm in an armchair, however, doesn't stop me from roaring my support at a TV screen. Nor does it prevent me from jumping up and down in frustration when things go wrong, or heaping abuse at a referee for perceived failure to uphold the laws of the game. Rationally, there's no good reason for this. I know it won't have any effect on the game, and the only effect it has on me is to unnecessarily raise my blood pressure.

There is something reassuring to this, though. For all that it is a charade, however strangely emotionally involving, it gives me peace of mind - that whatever I could have done to help the team (even if, in reality, it is sod all) has been done. That it is not my fault that the team has failed.

This is all a long preamble to my frustration that I will be on the other side of the world when England play South Africa in the World Cup on Friday, and far away from a TV showing the match. I remember back to four years ago, when every passing England victory gave me a greater sense of pleasure, culminating, ultimately, in the lifting of the Webb Ellis trophy. In my heart of hearts, I know that time is past; I know there is little to no chance of a repeat performance. But that doesn't stop me hoping.

I know that the most likely result on Friday will be a defeat for England. If it isn't, I'll check the BBC Sport website and let out a large cheer when I see the result. But if it is, then it will give me a bigger punch to the stomach. After all, how could I let my country down?

Monday, September 10, 2007

This Is All Political

The big news today has been General Petraeus's appearance before Congress to give his progress report on the troop surge. Unsurprisingly, it's been enough for the Republicans to hail the move as a success, but doesn't give enough meat to the Democrats to ease up on their criticism.

Now, I really don't know what the best course of action in Iraq is. I fear the shit-storm that's going to erupt when foreign troops leave the country; it's going to be messy, deadly, and proof that imposing democracy at the point of a gun, if it can ever succeed, requires considerable forethought. And it's a problem that we have created, and we owe it to the people of Iraq to give them as much help as we can.

Then again, I'm not sure how helpful the foreign presence in Iraq is, or exactly what it's achieving. Patrols are seemingly designed in such a way as to protect the lives of servicemen first, and target the insurgents second. If US and UK troops really aren't achieving anything in terms of creating stable institutions in Iraq, and reports seem to suggest that they aren't, then their presence is more of a rallying cry for insurgents than it is helpful to security. But if we are to pull out, then this has to be the rationale - that the presence of troops is doing more harm than good. We broke Iraq, we bought the problem. And we've got to find some way to make it better.

Let's not pretend that the report today was anything other than a political stunt, though. Even though it's a military man giving the report, the timetable that he suggests is just too good to be true. According to the BBC, it suggests that marines will start coming home in September next year, and there may be as many as 30,000 troops home last year.

September? So that'll be the home straight in the 2008 Presidential race, then. And with pretty much every Democrat standing against the troop surge, and calling for the troops to come home, the fact that the Bush administration is actually going to be doing this before the election will knock out, or at the very least, undermine significantly, what was going to be a key part of any Democrat platform. This smacks of political strategy. It's just too closely timed to the election timetable to be anything else.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Britblog Roundup #134

Belated greetings, and welcome to the 134th edition of the Britblog Roundup. This week's edition is winging its way to you from the USA, but such is the joy of the internet that it is still the one and only portal you need for all the best blogging from Britain. Without any further ado, let's give you what you've been waiting for:

First up is this announcement from Dan Hardie, keeping everyone updated on the campaign to change Government policy regarding those Iraqis who have worked for the British. Let's see how many MPs turn up on October 9th.

Craig Murray laments the murder of one of his friends from Uzbekistan with some moving and ultimately worrying prose.
With Mark a great talent dies, and one of the last flickering embers of freedom
in Uzbekistan. is concerned with a different kind of freedom, and urges us all to make our voices heard in opposition to the idea of a national DNA database.

Some big news this week has obviously been the developments in the Madeleine McCann case. Pandemian offers a religious take on the story. Tygerland, meanwhile, offers his thoughts regarding the short memory of the tabloid press.

Jim Jay asks if it's acceptable to drink tea made by a paedophile.

One of the wonders of the blogosphere, of course, is the extra light that it's able to shed on various matters. There are some excellent examples this week. James Graham of the Quaequam Blog has been sitting on a LibDem committee on constitutional reform, and explains the thinking behind their call for a constitutional convention over at OurKingdom. On more local matters, Antonia Bance reports a small success in her work as a councillor.

The F Word considers a bad week in the struggle for equal pay.

On a more optimistic note, however, Amused Cynicism tells us about the Flynn Effect, also known as the fact that average IQ scores are always rising. It seems that we might just all be getting smarter.

Osama bin Laden has popped up in the last week, presumably to remind us all that he's still alive. PooterGeek and Chicken Yoghurt both take the opportunity to poke fun at the bearded man's vanity. Just how do you make that much grey hair disappear?

Mr Eugenides fails in his stated aim to hold back his rage. But who can blame him, really, with Ed Ball's proto-Stalinist Ten Year Plan for Children?

Doctor Vee turns to the old chestnut of the idea of privacy in the age of the Internet. But his concern comes from a slightly different angle - should he mention his blog on his CV?
The crux of the matter is this. You and I know that blogging can be a pretty
worthwhile activity. But what does the person reading my CV think?

Unmitigated England finds an unusual figure in a field.

Dr Rant looks at the logical implications of the case made by those frustrating patients who yell at the receptionist that they want to see their GP immediately.

It wouldn't be a proper BritBlog Roundup if we didn't include at least one post from the man who made us what we are today. Tim Worstall has finally worked out what's wrong with him: Beer Deficiency Disorder.

Philobiblon talks to us about the Revenge of Gaia, and the hellish temperature of the earth. On a similar topic, the Early Modern Whale contrasts the melting of the polar ice caps with a 1684 pamphlet regarding pack ice in the Channel.

The Drink-Soaked Trots offer some detailed thoughts on realpolitik and genocide.

Jonathan Calder considers the media's impact on the number of children taking school meals.

The Wardman Wire has been running a series of guest postings about Health and Safety regulations. The full list is here; but this is the best of the lot. Be careful: it may contain nuts. And in a special bonus inclusion, you should read Matt's case against the death penalty, too.

Susanne Lamido thinks it is about time that the Liberal Democrats woke up and smelled the coffee.

Chris Dillow wonders why Brown won't call a referendum on the EU treaty if he's so bothered about public consultation? His conclusion can probably be summed up in the words 'control freak'.

The SpyBlog considers the evidence of Chinese government attacks on the UK, or the lack thereof. And the Yorkshire Ranter adds his twopenneth, too.

The post I probably enjoyed most this week was a little bit of nostalgia from the excellent More Than Mind Games, in which he considers the parallels that could be drawn between the men the British public choose to lead them, and the men the FA chooses to manage the England football team.

Cicero's Songs laments the 19th-century rail system in Britain. Not without good reason.

Burning Our Money takes a look at the sums that are being offered by the Tory Party, and gives them a few extra policy options.

Eaten by Missionaries lambasts Mark Oaten, and says that for Lib Dems to engage in talks of coalition is little short of political suicide.

Pickled Politics contains a guest post that makes an impassioned plea for party politics.

Jock Coats looks at the British Crime Survey, and comes up with a surprising idea to reassure the public.

And finally - just how good is the tap-dancing werewolf?

Before we leave, I should point out that next week will see the second annual Lib Dem Blog of the Year awards. You can find the shortlists here.

And that's your lot for this week. Until next time, toodle-pip!

Friday, September 7, 2007

Will America Love Huckabee?

One thing that strikes me very clearly, having watched a variety of American news channels over the last month, is that whoever wins the Democrat nomination (given that the winner will be surnamed Clinton or Obama, bearing a total meltdown, in which case it will be Edwards) is going to be the presumptive President-elect. The lion's share of the media coverage has been on the Democrat race; when it has covered those clamouring for the Republican nomination, it has often been only to highlight their side-swipes at the Democrats. Even the entry of Fred Thompson into the race hasn't significantly stepped up the attention.

(There's another reason why I think the 2008 race is the Democrats to lose, but I'll save that for another post).

John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney are all bona-fide first tier candidates, but for one reason or another they don't really excite people. McCain has struggled with the mantle of the front-runner; moreover, he has had significant political misfortune. He's a brave enough politician to take a stand that is unpopular when he thinks that he's right, but his last two stands have been disastrous.

Firstly, he threw his weight behind the troop surge when US opinion swings away from such heavy commitment; secondly, he supported an immigration reform with a plan for some illegal immigrants to gain citizenship. This may well be a policy that makes sense, but it takes only a cursory glance at the rhetoric of commentators on both right and left to realise that it is badly out of step with public opinion.

The knocks on Romney are well-known; he is trying to present himself as a social conservative when his track record suggests otherwise. This isn't helped by the fact that he comes across as your archetypal businessman, always trying to sell you something. Watching him, you always wonder what he's hiding from view.

Giuliani is the candidate who scares me the most. His political achievements are really quite miniscule, compared with the task of running the entire United States. He was reassuring on 9/11, for sure, but the task of deciding America's national response to a terrorist attack is considerably different. His polling numbers are good on issues of national security - but really, what does he know of it? I get the feeling he could shoot from the hip on foreign policy through the belief that he knows what he's doing, when the opposite is true. But while he may be the candidate with the name recognition and the candidate in poll position, I think it is fair to say the Republican base also isn't sure what to make of him. I can't recall him making the lead on the news at all in the past month.

In such a situation, then, there's the distinct possibility for an under-the-radar campaign to gather momentum with stronger than expected showings in Iowa and New Hampshire. Novelty value - in particular, the media attention that would inevitably follow - could then give a further poll boost as the candidates head for the crunch in early February.

The candidate who seems most likely to me to have this scenario play out is Mike Huckabee.

He's been slowly gaining more media attention since his second-place finish in the Iowa straw poll; the debate on Thursday saw him probably gain the most of any of the Republican candidates. His social conservative credentials are strong - a look at his website would reassure anyone with fears on that score. Yet at the same time, he's had appearances on the Daily Show and the Colbert Report in which he's been received very favourably. I distinctly recall Jon Stewart's tone of surprise in talking about his book, that it was 'full of things that I'd agree with as a liberal'. He seems to have the knack of finding the right tone.

Moreover, he has some intriguing ideas. He is calling, for example, for the scrapping of all federal income taxes, to be replaced with a national sales tax, with exemptions on all purchases up to the poverty line. I don't know whether this is a feasible plan - either in getting it past Congress or in economic terms - but it's the sort of idea that might catch the imagination, if the groundwork has been correctly laid in Iowa and New Hampshire. He'll have a long enough period to impress the ideas on the public between those campaigns and the start of February, without there being a great opportunity to pull them apart (that, of course, will come if he actually wins the nomination).

This might all be fanciful thinking - little more than the idle hopes of someone hoping for an exciting primary race. But there's conventional wisdom that Governors are better candidates for President than Senators, given the voting records that Senators pile up in their years of service, whereas Governors have the ability to campaign on the change that occurred under their watch. And in a race where none of the frontrunners really excite, in a race that has been so long that familiarity might breed contempt, there is room for someone to come up through the ranks. Could it be Huckabee?

Dumbing Down Is Not The Way

I've just come across this disturbing blog post over at Amused Cynicism:

So, there you have it. Exams must be made easier, so that thick kids can
have a “positive experience”. We can’t shatter the fragile egos of the poor
dears, now can we? It’s Alice in fucking Wonderland, where all have won, and all
must have prizes.

At this point you may be thinking, “hang on, maybe the existing exams
are very hard, and making them easier is the right thing to do.” Well, you’d be

The rest of the post highlights a GCSE Physics paper from earlier this year, giving three questions where absolutely no knowledge of physics was required at all to get the question right. Indeed, one of the questions isn't even remotely scientific - it's just a question of having a little bit of common sense. One other question is at least mathematical; the other deals with the scientific method - although it is comical to suggest that they are particularly stretching questions.

This reflects a worrying trend in education, though. 'Inclusivity' is the buzzword, either that or 'access' - both of which have, at heart, a laudable aim. We should want great educational achievements from as many people as possible. The problem is that knowledge isn't a relative quality, it's an absolute one.

But the problem in Britain is that value attaches itself to the level of education, rather than the quality achieved at that level. Our universities have historically been the envy of much of the rest of the world. It was not for nothing that the A-Level used to be known as the 'gold standard'. Yet while the names attached to the level of education hasn't changed, the standard has - and seemingly quite markedly. The desire for 'participation', though, means that in the minds of some it is wrong to close off avenues in education. Even when their academic attainment simply isn't sufficient to justify their presence at a certain level.

The article I've linked to rightly criticises the assumption that the response to some children doing badly in exams should be to make the exams easier. The problem is that it's an attitude that pervades the educational establishment. The ironically named Qualifications Assurance Agency once carried out a study into the high drop-out rate for an engineering course at Paisley University. Its recommendations? That the course be made more suitable for the educational background of the students - a coded reference, of course, to making the course easier. Quite what assurance the QAA provides, I really don't know.

Now, the fact that people still want to continue learning is a wonderful thing, and something that should be encouraged. But it shouldn't be encouraged at any price. And it certainly shouldn't be encouraged at the price of academic standards for existing qualifications. Ultimately, there needs to be some recognised standard against which people can be judged. What I'm calling for, essentially, is a rethink of the structure of our education system. It's taking too much strain - we are trying to make degree courses represent all kind of differing levels of achievement, but shoehorning them into the same results classifications.

There's nothing to be gained by taking different forms of education and trying to compare them to each other. The facts are simple - we need to diversify our education system, so that people can learn at the level, and learn the skills, that are most important to them. And classify them as such, rather than trying to pretend that a vocational A-Level in tourism can be summed up in an equivalent grade to an academic A-Level in maths.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

How To Deal With The Brightest

A couple of weeks ago, TIME Magazine ran a superb article regarding the forgotten men of the education system - the super-bright. Although the focus of the article is on the US system, the same criticisms could be levelled pretty much word-for-word at Britain. It starts off with the case of Annalisee Brasil, a 14-year-old refused admission to school except with her own age group, despite the fact that she is manifestly ahead of the learning curve.

That there is a difficulty in coping with genius in any public education system doesn't surprise me. There is a utilitarian principle at work in such an organisation - for the key question in setting up such a system must always be "what is the minimum skill set we would expect any 16-year-old to leave school with"? Yet while there is always considerable turmoil over how to deal with the children left behind, the children at the head of the queue largely get ignored.

But, as the article points out, this is not without its consequences.
But surprisingly, gifted students drop out at the same rates as nongifted
kids--about 5% of both populations leave school early. Later in life, according
to the scholarly Handbook of Gifted Education, up to one-fifth of dropouts test
in the gifted range.

The article goes on to suggest that a number of philanthropic ventures may provide the way forward for dealing with gifted students - schools with a less age-rigid curriculum, that are able to stretch students most in the subjects they excel at. I'm not so convinced that the super-bright need to be taken out of the education system in such a way. What does need to be done, however, is to create a school system with significantly more flexibility in dealing with the abnormally intelligent.

Perhaps the first question that should be dealt with is this - why should the education system bother itself with providing special facilities for the gifted? After all, there has to be a point at which motivation spurs a child on to greater achievement, and the art of learning for yourself must be developed at some time or other.

This, to me, is incredibly short-sighted. The school system places pressure on high-achievers; whilst they breeze to a string of top grades, they are often socially ostracised because of their ability - we need only think of the stereotypical nerd. This value system provides a positive disincentive to learn. It's bad enough doing well at the tasks set you by teacher, without going out of your way to set yourself even further ahead of the crowd.

This is a value system that, ironically, is encouraged in many ways by the political target culture. When there is such a stress on getting pass rates up, those who are going to pass come what may are inevitably going to be a lesser priority for teachers under the weight of league table performance. The smart kid will be a positive headline statistic whether or not s/he gets an A or an A*; the kid who could get a C or a D, on the other hand, puts the teacher's neck on the line. Indeed, in a system like this, the teacher may well be inclined to use the smart kid as a surrogate tutor. Rather than pushing the brightest to better things, it's a much better use of resources to get them to help out those at the business end of the class.

Then, of course, we have the question of grade inflation. It's a question that lingers, hidden under the mass of journalist indignation that comes to the surface every August. If exams are getting easier, then how are we challenging the brightest? After all, when getting everything right in all exams is a serious possibility, how do we know the limits of achievement? How do we encourage students to push themselves further when they can get all the grades that they need without seriously stretching their grey matter? Academics in university admissions would tell you that the performance of students in an exam where the top mark is 75% is generally more useful than an exam where people reach 100%.

We now have a public exam system where it's possible for students to amass 8 or more A Levels at the top grade. While I'd question the value of that - after all, there's a certain amount of grunt work involved in study that could be more profitably directed into extra-curricular activities - it really isn't suggestive of an exam system that exercises the top minds. Moreover, the government has positively disincentivised extra learning at certain stages of the school career. SATs for 11-year-olds, when I took them, had a top grade of level 6. That's now disappeared. Will students really push themselves to obtain a higher level 5 mark? Or does it encourage them to coast, and not make the most of their ability?

Nor can we reasonably expect students to find motivation for themselves. On the one level, they're still young - they don't know exactly what they should be looking for. Teachers have a greater life experience, and are in a very good position to know what extra books are most likely to inspire their top pupils - and making recommendations on this level is more useful than stumbling about in the dark. After all, education should be about shining light where there used to be dark.

Personally, I have always been an advocate of grammar school systems. Pupils have different aptitudes and capabilities. We recognise this in some areas - no-one would suggest that someone off the street could sing as well as Pavarotti if he was only taught the right way. Why, then, do we persist in the idea that educational excellence can be achieved by all? It isn't a smart idea to teach a child who isn't very good at football the Cruyff turn, yet it might be an essential skill to someone who aspires to the Premiership. That doesn't mean we don't get both kids to enjoy playing football - it just means we pitch their education to different levels. And it should be the same in the classroom.

Just as a Wayne Rooney, moreover, would play years above his age group in football, we should make it easier for children to move up year groups in education. It does no good to frustrate a bright child by forcing him to learn at a pace that is too slow for him. That said, there are obvious social limits on the number of years that someone can be moved up in education, and this is where perhaps the most important observation needs to be made. If we are to make the most of our brightest students, then teachers need to play a more proactive role in stretching the best.

This can be done quite simply in many cases. Where students might find the tasks set in class can be done quickly, they could be set additional work. Extra vocabulary lists in language classes; encouragement to read proper history books, rather than textbooks; suggesting that students subscribe to the New Scientist, perhaps. But it is inculcating this sort of desire to succeed that is vital. For the extra attention to the bright is given to pupils in private schools, but all too often similar aspiration is lacking in the state sector. One of the reasons why the top universities have fewer state school students than you might expect given A-Level results is that pupils with the top grades don't apply there.

One reason for this, I would venture, is that the brightest pupils aren't stretched enough to think that they have a chance. And that is a criminal failure. Because, while one of the key aims of an education system is to make sure that everyone is given the skill set they need to succeed, another one must surely be to allow every child to fulfil his potential. And if we do not set difficult goals for the brightest students, then they won't be inspired to achieve better things. Success may come naturally - but it government-defined success, rather than a true realisation of potential. It's a question that needs serious attention. The brightest students often get ignored in secondary education - they may not be the chief concern of headline-writers, but that doesn't mean their interests shouldn't be attended to.


I tried starting blogging again at my old haunt, From The Dustbin of History, but I found my heart wasn't really in it. Ironically, too many posts that I'd started were destined to end up in the dustbin of history. Nevertheless, I've hoped to return to proper blogging for a while now, and I hope that I'm inspired by a clean slate.