Thursday, March 06, 2008

The greatest trick the right ever pulled

Harry Mount doesn’t like the new ‘contextual value added’ school league tables:

Have you ever judged a restaurant by the people that eat there, not by the food or the service? Or rated a book because the other readers had a rough childhood?
This is the idea behind the latest school league tables. Along with exam results, the class, ethnicity and gender of the pupils were considered. And so four excellent grammar schools came in the country's worst 100 schools because their intake was too middle class. The wicked lunacy of these criteria - judge an institution not by its standards, but by its clientele - isn't shocking any more because it's so familiar.

“Wicked lunacy”? Taking into account the scale of the task as well as the end result?

The quality of a book manifestly doesn’t depend on the backgrounds of its other readers; and I’m pretty sure we all do partly judge a restaurant by our fellow diners. If a place that serves food I like gets a lot of stag and hen parties in, I’ll probably stay away.

But imagine two surgeons: one treats ingrown toenails, with a patient survival rate of 90%; the other treats gunshot wounds, with a patient survival rate of 85%. Which surgeon is better – the one with the higher rate, or the one doing the harder task?

It’s an enduring and cosy delusion among fans of (overt or de facto) socially selective schooling that the “standards” of such an “institution” are somehow independent of its “clientele”. The schools themselves certainly know this: that’s why they select. The parents know it, too: that’s why the ones who’ve paid top dollar for their catchment areas are angry about the new admission lotteries.

Baudelaire said: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist” (it was borrowed by ‘The Usual Suspects’). The greatest trick of conservative politics is to present itself as not political at all: contentious ideology becomes common sense while disagreement becomes leftist propaganda, political correctness and overbearing statism. Further strengthening the already strong is nothing more than respecting the natural order of things, while strengthening the weak is a dangerous top-down project of upheaval.

Thus the view that it’s “social engineering” to require state schools to be more socially egalitarian in their admissions. Well, actually, I agree that it is; in fact, it’s social engineering to even have a system of state schools providing universal education regardless of ability to pay. And a good thing, too.

But it’s also social engineering – and in a bad way – to argue that the better-run schools in the state system should only be open to a certain class of applicant. It’s not the default, naturally just setting of society for taxpayers to fund educational gated communities for the well-to-do.

A policy of favouring the already advantaged is as much an ideological stance as one of favouring the disadvantaged.


Cassilis said...

Mmm...not quite.

"A policy of favouring the already advantaged is as much an ideological stance as one of favouring the disadvantaged."

Yes as it stands but that's actually corruption (albeit a clever and subtle one)of what the right actually says - helps make your point of course but I'm not sure it's fair.

An 'un-engineered' outcome might indeed favour the 'already advantaged' but the point is it's a passive or indirect outcome, something which can be (and often is) bucked by individual merit and ability. That's why I think there's some legitimacy in describing this approach as natural.

The engineered outcome is direct and deliberate - it purposively interferes to effect an outcome other than that which would've occurred naturally.

Of course, lots of people (me included largely - prefer streaming myself) are comfortable with that and that's fair enough.

But I think the point that one approach is more ideological and contrary to human nature than the other still stands.

Great post though....

Tom Freeman said...

By "favouring the already advantaged" I mean actively using the power of the state in that direction, not just letting the status quo be ("Further strengthening the already strong").

But beyond that:

An 'un-engineered' outcome ... there's some legitimacy in describing this approach as natural.

Well, is it only the state that can do engineering? Nuclear families, extended families, community groups, guilds, private businesses and plcs are all contingent institutions, and they can influence outsiders as well as insiders, sometimes coercively.

Given that we're the kind of creature that exists socially and deliberately tries to shape the social environment, I think the natural/artificial line can get pretty blurry when we're talking about institutions.

I'm also not suggesting that everyone on the right seeks to promote the already rich and powerful, but there are certainly those that do - typically because they are (in some context) part of that group. (Conversely there are those on the left who are pro-poor because of their own interests rather than values.)

Tom Freeman said...

PS Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I don't profess to know much about the value adding algorithm, but the outcome described in the attacked article seems to indicate that it doesn't take into accountt the law of diminishing returns... It is often a lot harder to get the last few pecentage points than the first few.

Let's consider 2 cohorts of kids A (avantaged) and D (disadvantaged). Two hypothetical perfect schools would, given either intake, end up with them leaving with maximum scores in all subjects. However, the school with the intake from cohort D would seem to be better within the system of ranking described. Of course, no system of measuring improvement taking nebulous concepts into account is perfect, but it does seem fair to question the system currently employed.