Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Sack Paxman

Last night Twitter was abuzz with the "car crash" interview of Treasury minister Chloe Smith. People were still tweeting and blogging about it this afternoon. With my usual excellent timing, by now there will be no-one left on the planet with even the vaguest interest in clicking through to yet more comment on that interview.

So well done on making it this far. And here goes...

I agree entirely with Richard Morris' succinct review of why Chloe Smith had no excuse.However, I want to focus on Jeremy Paxman. I've blogged previously about why I no longer watch Newsnight when he's presenting. But I would now go further than that. I think he deserves to be sacked.

Image: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by englishpen
Not for this interview in particular. It was quite legitimate for him to be asking when the decision to delay the fuel duty rise was taken, why Smith appeared to have changed her mind about the issue, how the measure would be funded, and why this measure took priority over reducing the deficit.

And not because of his bullying approach per se. His technique last night was no worse than Paxman has deployed many times before; and although I detest the default attitude to politicians of "Why is this lying bastard lying to me?", it is sometimes necessary to deploy an aggressive approach to try to cut through obfuscation about very serious matters.

No, I think he should be sacked because he is incompetent. And this interview illustrates this perfectly.

Before the interview, we already knew that the decision was a last-minute one. We also knew that it would mostly be funded by departmental under-spends, but that it wasn't yet clear how much would be taken from each department.

So what could a good journalist realistically hope to achieve in this interview? I would suggest that the five key things we would have liked to have found out are:
  1. What are the justifications for the Government changing its mind?
  2. At a particular moment when tax receipts are sharply down and borrowing sharply up, why wouldn't the money be better spent reducing the deficit?
  3. How does this decision square with the Prime Minister's boast that his will be "the greenest government ever"?
  4. Why was the decision so last-minute?
  5. When will it be known which departments are to experience budget cuts as a consequence of this decision?
A smart interviewer - such as Jon Snow, Robin Lustig or Andrew Neil - might well have started with questions that a Treasury minister should be able to answer, following up with thoughtful questions that attempt to tease out ambiguities and gaps in the logic. It's true that there might be times when an interviewee can be unsettled by a relentless, aggressive, opening attack; but overusing such a technique means that future interviewees will be resolute in sticking rigidly to their talking points.

Instead, sensing the weakness of the Government's position on the decision, Paxman set out to entertain the audience with the ritual humiliation of a minister:
  • He asked Smith about 10 times "When were you told about the decision?" (or words to that effect)
  • He repeatedly shouted, hectored and interrupted Smith.
  • He asked an excessive number of questions phrased in such a way as to humiliate rather than to elicit serious responses, including:
    • "Is it hard for you to defend a decision you don't agree with?"
    • "Is this some sort of joke?"
    • "Did you get the sums wrong?"
    • "Do you ever wake up in the morning and think 'My God, what am I going to be told today? '"
    • "Do you ever think you're incompetent?"
To be fair, Smith could have made a much better fist of responding. After all, a decision to delay a tax rise is hardly the most difficult position to defend in politics. She needed to keep pivoting back to "Hard-working people and businesses aren’t interested in the process. They're interested in the outcome, which is the Government listening to how badly people have been harmed by Labour's deficit, and so we're taking the right decision to ameliorate Labour's taxes. This will help people who commute to work, people who travel because of their jobs, people who live in the country..." Of course that's easy for me to say. It's not so easy to do it under the hot lights and the sneer of a boorish interviewer. But that's her job, so I'm not overly concerned about that. And she'd already been through one interview earlier in the evening, so she knew what questions were very likely to come up!

So how well did Paxman do? Of the "five key things we would have liked to have found out" I identified earlier, how many did we gain information about?

And this interview isn't an isolated case.

If it turns out that BBC News is actually a subdivision of BBC Entertainment, then Paxman's bosses should be rightly proud of his continuing ability to attract attention. On the other hand, Nick Clarke, Vincent Hanna and Charles Wheeler will be turning in their graves.

What mark would you give Paxman?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Gove's O-levels take us back to basics

As Parliament prepares to discuss the Education Secretary's proposals to abolish GCSEs and bring back O-levels, it's perhaps worth examining why we abandoned O-levels in the first place:

(i) O-levels were designed to filter children, not to assess capabilities.
O-levels were not intended to provide either a broad education or a recognition of all children's attainment. They were a mechanism to sift from the most academic children those who would be suitable candidates for A-levels, which would in turn identify the lucky 5% who would make it to university.

Consequently O-levels used norm-referencing: fixed percentages of children achieved each grade. By design, every year exactly the same proportion of children were given an A grade, a B grade, and so on.

If you happen to be born in an academically strong year, your answers could receive a worse grade than if you happen to be born in an academically weak year. If society gets dramatically smarter, say because of improvements in nutrition or teaching methods, the results won't reflect this. If teachers get better at identifying who's likely to fail the O-level and enter them for CSE instead, the percentage of failures is not allowed to drop, so many of those who would have got an E grade are then given a fail. And it's not obvious from the results if educational standards are falling, which lets the Education Secretary off the hook!

We now know that 40%+ of children are capable of university-level study, but since O-levels were filtering children rather than assessing attainment, it's now clear that O-levels were holding back huge numbers of children.

Moreover a successful modern economy requires a diverse, adaptable workforce, capable of taking on jobs in emerging areas. Employers need to know what an individual is capable of, not what percentile of the population their scores happened to be in a particular cohort. O-levels didn't tell employers what applicants can do.

(ii) O-levels wrote off most of the population.
Because only the most academic 20% of children took O-levels, CSEs were introduced for the rest, rather than have them leave school with nothing.

But this two-tier system created a rigid divide between children, based on decisions at 13- 14 years old, that had consequences for the rest of their lives. O-levels were a high-stakes social filter that determined who got to continue their education. So this divide disadvantaged the many children who mature later, who discover their motivation only when they encounter specialist subject teachers, who have tough home lives, or who struggle with adolescence. Stigmatised as CSE dullards, 80% of children were unfairly excluded from further education and from a huge range of occupations.

The FT notes:
A third of children who score in the bottom 25 per cent at the age of 11 break out of that grouping by the age of 16. If they are placed in a second-class category at an early age, there is a risk that these children will be written off. This is no recipe for tackling low performance.

(iii) O-levels equated education with academic study.
If you wanted more education, you had to do well at O-levels. But O-levels were intended to identify potential candidates for academic study. This inevitably led to academic study being seen as the only type of education that mattered, to the detriment of technical and vocational education. We now realize that our economy has been held back by failing to nurture the engineers, inventors, designers, programmers, technicians, electricians, plumbers and so on that a modern society needs. Many of the people who have been successful in these occupations have got there in spite of the binary divide - academic study or nothing - that was forced on children at an early age.

Indeed, the biographies of many of the previous generation of "captains of industry", inventors and designers recount how they left school at 15 or 16 because it offered them nothing, and were passionately driven to prove society wrong in its apparent judgement of them as having no talent. This triumph-from-adversity mechanism worked for them, but who knows if they might have achieved even more for the country if they had had the proper education they knew they deserved? And how many massively talented men and women have we never heard of, because instead of being inspired by their ejection from school, left with their spirits crushed?

Moreover, the powerful classical idea that education is a lifelong personal pursuit, worthwhile for its own sake, also lost in the feverish race to be in the top 5%. A better educated society is a more thoughtful society, yet the O-level + CSE system failed to foster creativity and engagement in our cultural life.


(iv) O-levels failed to prepare children for modern society.
Derived from a nineteenth century perception of what an undergraduate would need to know, the narrowness of the O-level curriculum was failing to equip children with the knowledge and skills needed for the world of work.

Moreover, the dominant method of assessment - timed, written examinations, with no modern tools or reference sources allowed - meant that an O-level grade was decided on a single day, enabling children to cram beforehand, without it mattering how much they remembered a week later.

Intermittently reductive and tricksy, O-levels failed to inculcate a spirit of independent inquiry. O-levels also failed to rigorously assess proficiency in the kinds of challenges met in modern working environments: dealing with multiple sources, handling messy data, sustained work over a period of time, collaborative tasks, practical aspects, and so on.

My personal view is that the last thing we should be doing is going back to such a grossly unfair system that lacks the rigorous methods and procedures for assessing the knowledge and skills expected of 21st century schoolchildren, whether they end up as professors, engineers, accountants, plumbers, call centre workers, journalists or members of Parliament. See also what respected education journalist Mike Baker has to say on the history of O-levels.

All that said, however, it's a good moment to look back at O-levels and ask whether anything vital has been lost in the transition to GCSEs, and whether there are ways in which British examinations at 16 can be improved.

So I have a few questions.


Image: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by teaeff

1. Are we really best served by GCSE grades D, E, F and G?

We have got into the habit of referring to "good passes" at GCSE, because we know that there is a huge difference between someone achieving a grade A* in design and technology, and someone achieving a grade G. In one sense that's fine: surely it's better to get a lower grade than nothing at all to show for years of schooling?

But in a typical GCSE, about a third of children get grades D or below. How useful are such grades in practice?

Firstly, grades such as F or G are rather demeaning for the child: A simple "fail" can be portrayed to oneself, family and friends as a near miss that you should be able to put right with a retake; whereas a grade F or G seems to imply that's your level. It must also be terribly demotivating for children who are stuck for two years in a set in which the best they can realistically hope for at the end of it is a grade D, or maybe a C if you were arguably in the wrong set to start with.

Secondly, such grades are very confusing for potential employers: Does this E grade mean the applicant got all the questions half right, or half the questions entirely right? Not terribly useful for judging if this person is up to the job.

Thirdly, these lower grades are damaging for the GCSE as a qualification: The kudos of "having a GCSE" is devalued because of the huge gap between A* and G. And needing to assess down to a grade G means questions have to be included that discriminate at that level, e.g. the infamous "To look at the moon would you use a microscope or a telescope?" question.

But here's the really worrying thing. As Chris Cook in the FT shows, the poorer the household, the greater the chances of a child getting these lower grades. In other words, the education system is continuing to reproduce inequality rather than challenging it.

When he made his statement to the Commons last week, Michael Gove said of this analysis
I have had a look at the Financial Times analysis and think that it suffers from one thing: it itself is a prisoner of the culture of low aspiration which we are tackling.
Meanwhile, the first question to Gove in the Commons was from a fellow Conservative, Graham Stuart, the Chair of the Education Select Committee. He said:
I welcome improved rigour, stretch and achievement for our most able pupils, but the central problem facing this country is not about its most able pupils but about the lowest-performing and, all too often, the poorest. Can the Secretary of State tell us: How will these changes and proposals improve the outcomes for the lowest deciles of achievement in our population? Socially and economically, we cannot afford the tail that we have inherited from the Labour party.
Gove's answer was:
My Honourable Friend makes a very good point. One of the principal problems with our education system is not only that it has fallen behind other nations, but that it is one of the most inequitable, stratified and segregated. The way in which we tackle that is not by dumbing down on qualifications, but by raising expectations at every level.
I have an idea that might help raise expectations.

Most GCSEs are tiered anyway. How about formalising the tiers by having "Foundation" and "Higher" versions of each GCSE? A Foundation GCSE would contain the kinds of things that we expect every school-leaver to know and to be able to do. For each subject, everyone takes Foundation as soon as they're ready, possibly even at the start of secondary school, rather than loading all the stress onto the end of Year 11. And restrict grading to "Pass", "Fail" and "Distinction", to keep things simple. If you fail, you retake until you pass. Then you move onto the Higher GCSE, unless you've reached 16, in which case you might choose to do a BTEC.

This is good for employers because it tells them what students with a Foundation GCSE should be able to do, rather than trying to work out whether that E grade means they got all the questions half right or if they got half the questions entirely right. This is good for children, because they get to aim for a qualification that shows they can do something, rather than a grade E, F or G that everyone seems to presume means they're not very bright. It's also good for children, parents and teachers because passing Foundation GCSE indicates who's now ready to take the Higher GCSE, and passing Higher GCSE indicates who's now ready to take a BTEC or an A-level. When the school-leaving age increases to 18, it will be vital to maintain this sense of motivation and progression.

Of course it might be objected that this is simply reintroducing CSEs by the back door. However, the differences are:

(i) Criterion-referencing instead of norm-referencing
Children are assessed on what they can do, rather than on how well everyone else is doing.

(ii) No writing off
Instead of two very different qualifications, it's two syllabi within the same system, and as soon as you've achieved one you can start studying for the next. There's no dividing the sheep from the goats at an early age. The assumption is that everyone will get Foundation eventually, just that it might take some children longer than others.

(iii) No devaluing of technical and vocational education
Unlike the O-level, a Higher GCSE doesn't force people into an academic strait-jacket. As now, it can lead to a BTEC or an A-level.

(iv) Preparation for modern society
There's no return to the narrow curriculum and limited assessment methods of the O-level.

Incidentally, our children are already "among the most tested in the world". I think if this idea of a Foundation GCSE is taken up it's only fair that we drop the remaining SATs. These bureaucratic tests serve little educational purpose for children, parents or teachers. Their role as a means to assess schools could easily be replaced by some kind of sampling.

2. Do improved grades imply standards are falling?

Every year when the results come out, there are predictable reactions:
  • If the grades are up, it must be grade inflation; so standards are falling. "Harumph! Exams were harder in my day..."
  • If the grades are down, it must be because of delinquency and trendy teachers; so standards are falling. "Harumph! Need some discipline..."
  • If the grades are much the same, Britain is being overtaken by third-world countries because schools are complacent and stagnating. "Harumph! Teach 'em the basics, I say, instead of these airy-fairy projects..."
  • Whatever happens to the grades, teachers and parents are very proud of all the hard work their children have put in.
So are exams getting easier? There seems to be insufficient research going on in the area to be able to tell, as Ben Goldacre explains.

Image: © freshidea - Fotolia.com
Moreover, because of criterion-referencing it's entirely possible for grades to increase year-on-year, as teachers discover improved ways to teach tricky topics, as government investment in schools pays off, as individual children are steered away from qualifications that experience suggests they're likely to fail, and as each successive generation of parents is better educated than the last. In fact, isn't this state of affairs what we would want in an ideal world? We want education to improve, don't we?!

However Gove and other educational hawks interpret improved results as evidence of falling standards. In their view, a "standard" is a criterion that determines a grade based not on educational attainment ("You get an A grade if you know and can do blah, blah, blah...") but on national percentiles ("You get an A grade if you're in the top 10% of the country."). This view is grounded in a philosophy of traditionalist conservatism, which emphasises the need for hierarchy and order in society.

No wonder they are shocked when the rest of the country welcomes improved results.

In a norm-referenced system, if education is improving, the proportions of children getting each grade remain fixed. So if we can't tell from the results if education is improving (or declining), what do you do? You can't tell by looking to see if the raw scores are higher: this might just mean the paper was too easy. Instead, you set a sample of children exams from previous years, see how they do, and compare with the current year.

In a criterion-referenced system, the idea that someone who did particularly well on a 1951 O-level should necessarily be as good at fulfilling the wider demands of a 2012 GCSE (and vice versa) is absurd. So again, there is a big mismatch of expectations.

I am amazed at how politicians seem so unwilling to take a position that international comparisons of children's test performances really don't assess all that's important for 21st century society. If we actually want Britain to be up at the top of the maths league table with South Korea, let's reduce the maths curriculum to the content of the international tests, and ditch all the stuff that we think is valuable for the well-educated citizen, the prospective professional, the budding Richard Branson, or the aspiring Cambridge wrangler.

Or maybe if we want to be at the top of the science league table with Finland, we should follow their model by abolishing Key Stage 1, league tables, school inspections, streaming, and national examinations before the age of 18. The lessons we draw from other countries need careful examination and do not necessarily travel well.

In fact I think we have pretty good and well-known evidence that GCSE standards can't be too bad: The proportion of young people who go to university is well over 40% now, up over a third from the last days of O-levels. Maybe university standards are falling as well, and we're all getting dumber and dumberer. ;-)

Anyway before we undertake a monumentally huge upheaval in our school system, I suggest we need rock solid evidence for the claim that standards are falling.


3. Should we make GCSEs more rigorous?

Separate from the issue of whether standards are falling, should we make GCSEs more rigorous anyway?

The meaning of "rigorous" needs some clarification. Does it refer to the worth of available GCSEs, to the quality of syllabi, to the difficulty of getting higher grades, or to the methods used to assess students? To all of the above? Or to something else?


(i) the worth of available GCSEs

GCSEs in "Leisure and Tourism", "Physical Education", "Hairdressing" or "Media Studies" are an anathema to some people. Not just woolly content, they would say, such qualifications are not fit for academic study, and allowing such GCSEs misleads children into thinking such qualifications will be taken seriously.

Although I only made up one of the example GCSEs in the previous paragraph, I think such criticisms can fall into the trap of imagining that only academic qualifications are worthwhile. Moreover, I am sure that experts in these fields can devise a curriculum for 16-year-olds every bit as demanding as History or French, although obviously demanding in quite different ways.

Nevertheless, I would question whether such qualifications are appropriate at 16. If (as I think) it's desirable for all children to study English Language (plus, where appropriate, Welsh or other national language), English Literature, Maths, one or more science subject, History, a modern foreign language, one or more design and technology subject, and one or more expressive arts subject, there's a danger of overloading children with exams. Vocational subjects and subjects that aren't considered core might well be appropriate as part of the 16-18 curriculum.


(ii) the quality of syllabi

Some people have the idea that GCSEs have woolly content like the episode of The Simpsons in which Lisa's math class is encouraged to reflect "How do numbers make you feel? What does a plus sign smell like? Is the number 7 odd, or just different?".

Given the range of very serious stakeholders in GCSE syllabi - industry, professional organisations, universities, politicians - this particular concern seems unlikely to be true.
"Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else."
On the other hand, a more common belief among educational hawks is that a high quality qualification should have a curriculum that is rooted in a classical grammar school education, emphasising theoretical knowledge over applied; memorisation and proficiency over understanding; utility over creativity. GCSEs do not have these emphases.

While few hawks propose the idea that 2013 exams should be testing the same knowledge and skills as 1951 O-levels, there is a perception among many hawks that, for example, the memorisation of "kings and queens", dates of battles, and similar facts constitutes an innately more educational value than understanding the causes of the First World War. They see being able to reproduce a diagram of the inner ear as more challenging and lasting than knowledge of current limitations of gene therapies. They see an encyclopaedic knowledge of cloud types as a better test of ability than understanding the controversies surrounding climate change.

I personally don't buy any of that, but it's right that stakeholders explain their reasoning in detail in particular subjects.



(iii) the difficulty of getting higher grades

As noted above, staunch advocates of norm-referencing are almost inevitably going to be dissatisfied with the level of difficulty with which higher grades are obtained under a criterion-referenced system. So they will need to make a case for going back to norm-referencing, rather than giving credit where credit is due. See James Atherton's arguments, for example.

I've outlined earlier why I think such arguments are problematic. In particular, requiring that a fixed proportion of children fail exams makes no sense to me. Melanie Phillips would describe my attitude as "All Must Have Prizes". On the contrary, I as a taxpayer have just paid for 12 years of education for these children: As a simple matter of accounting for this money, I want to know what they can do, and I want them to have a certificate that tells employers what they can do. I don't want them to have just a cruddy bit of paper that says "FAIL" and a crushed attitude to learning likely to return the country to the levels of prosperity we saw in the Dark Ages.

Nevertheless, and here I'm agreeing with Gove, I suggest that whether assessment is criterion-referenced or norm-referenced, if education were improving each year we wouldn't actually want to "maintain standards" at all. We'd want to tweak the curriculum each year to include new demands that would stretch those at the top. Otherwise this would eventually lead to a situation in which tiny differences between marks mean the difference between an A and a fail.

Of course, year-by-year employers, schools and universities would want certain kinds of consistency. You wouldn't want wild shifts. How would the sudden introduction of O-levels (thus automatically requiring a large increase in the proportion that fail) help employers, who would suddenly be faced with a barrage of applicants who think they're rubbish at everything and have the grades to prove it? Instead, I would argue we would want to prevent results skewing upwards: not by unfairly giving lower grades for the same answers, but by making the curriculum very slightly harder as national educational attainment improves.

In a sense, this process probably already goes on to some extent, as ideas that used to be at the cutting-edge of research (quantum theory, representations of women, economic interpretations of history, say) get taught at undergraduate level, and then (in some form) at A-level, and maybe even become part of everyday knowledge. But perhaps we need to hear more about such changes to the curriculum: Anything that makes the curriculum harder needs to be clearly flagged, to ensure that those who use lower results to bash teachers are aware.


(iv) the methods used to assess students

Earlier I will have slightly startled educational hawks by referring to O-levels as lacking rigour in assessing proficiency in the kinds of challenges met in modern working environments. The hawks' perennial complaint is that the most rigorous assessment is that timed, written exam.

GCSEs make it too easy for students, they say, because a range of assessment methods are used, including coursework ("Their parents do the work, or it's copied off the internet or their friends."); calculators ("The calculator gives them all the answers! These days they can't even add up for themselves."); having source material in the exam ("They're allowed to cheat by bringing in all their books"); scope for interpretation ("Examiners give marks for any old rubbish, and get sacked if they're too strict."); and multiple choice ("You can do it randomly, and still get a C!")

However, I'm very happy that how we're testing in exams is much closer to the reality of work. How is restricting maths and science solely to problems that don't require calculators useful? How kind of engineer isn't allowed to refer to the manual? Do all historians agree with each other? There is also a lot of ignorance around about contemporary assessment. Coursework is often done under very controlled conditions. There's also a mental arithmetic component to Maths GCSE. One duff question ridiculed in a newspaper doesn't mean all the questions are duff.

In my view, the current, almost universal, clamour for a single exam board is a bit of a red herring. It's vital to the success of exam boards that they maintain their integrity, so I've no doubt that they and Ofqual have strict procedures in place to check the validity of assessments and the consistency between boards and over time. A "race to the bottom" would be madness, and so I doubt it's happening. And if it is, it should be stopped. But, in any case, I would hope the curriculum can adapt, as society becomes better educated, as job demands change, and as academic knowledge advances. A single exam board simply restricts choice, without changing anything about year-on-year consistency or comparability across subjects.

And as for the now ubiquitous claim that Ofqual has provided evidence of a "gradual decline in standards" and that "not enough has been demanded of students", well I'm afraid that's just a politician's clever spin.

There could arguably be more openness by Ofqual and exam boards about instances when assessment arrangements have had to be improved. However, I can quite understand the temptation to keep confidential what is likely to be shamelessly misrepresented in newspapers!

So might there be other ways to increase rigour in relation to assessment methods? Yes. Much of office life these days relies on effective use of the internet: searching, weighing up sources, and dealing with unknowns or incommensurable systems. Yet using these important skills in current exams would, of course, constitute cheating. But just as the invention of the steel-nibbed pen meant that assessing handwriting with a quill pen became irrelevant, and just as the invention of the calculator meant that the slide rule no longer features in exams, so too we need to consider how it is possible to assess accurately and fairly if the internet were to hand.

To be honest, I can see many challenges for such an idea, and they might be insuperable. However, I'd suggest assessment is not rigorous if it simply assesses what is easy to assess, rather than assessing what we expect of an educated person in a modern society.


4. Should we be using qualifications at 16 to judge capacity for university study?

One criticism of GCSEs is that by failing to discriminate at the upper end, they fail to give universities sufficient information about suitability for undergraduate study.

Image: CC BY-SA 2.0 by jameskm03
I think this view has some merit. Qualifications at 16 are trying to do a variety of things: to provide evidence of what an individual has learned; to motivate and reward hard work in the preceding years; to ensure a good basic education for as many as possible; to act as a focus for inculcating social norms; to guide career choices; to fulfil requirements for certain occupations and for further study; to provide information on the performance of schools and teachers; and to help schools and teachers improve their methods.

That's a lot of diverse purposes, and I bet I've forgotten a few important ones! Cambridge University says "Our research shows that post-16 examination performance is a much better predictor of degree success". I don't think this is any surprise, given these diverse purposes, and given that for many adolescents the preceding years may well have been emotionally turbulent.

So whether we should be trying to make qualifications at 16 a better predictor of suitability for university, I'm not so sure. What's more, I'm not convinced it's necessary. A-levels are designed to have that function, and a big reason why a university might use O-levels rather than A-levels to make judgements is that universities are required to make judgements before A-level results are known.

There have been repeated sincere attempts to try to solve this problem of university applications, and there is not space here to explore the issues, but in my view this is a problem that needs addressing. We know that A-level students from poorer backgrounds and from state schools are under-represented at the top universities, and one of the main reasons often cited by universities is that they don't apply in the first place. Application after the A-level results are known creates a more level playing field, in which the basis for deciding where to apply is not predicted grades, or what students from the year above did, or where parents went, or how well connected the teachers are... but the students' actual grades.

We currently have a bizarre system in which we say we want students from poorer backgrounds and from state schools to aim higher, but we fail to give them the one thing that could boost their confidence into doing that: their results.

5. Some further questions

There are few other questions I'd like to ask about qualifications at 16. For example:
  • What should we do to improve the status of technical and vocational pathways? As the FT says: "In England the path for a would-be university student is clear and schools know how to guide pupils down it. But for others there is little help and too often even less respect for non-academic qualifications."
  • Is "5 GCSEs at A*-C" the best measure to use of school performance?
  • What evidence is there that academy schools or free schools get better results, separate from the benefits of the additional money they are given compared with other schools?
  • Should teachers, as professionals, not have a role to play in helping shape new education proposals such as Gove's? I have a gut feeling that real educational improvement comes from enabling teachers to try new ways of teaching, not from dramatic new initiatives by ambitious Education ministers.
  • How important are teachers' qualifications? There have been claims in the past that teachers with better degrees (in their subject) make better teachers, or that requiring masters degrees will improve teaching. What evidence is there for these kinds of claims?

Concluding thoughts

I've outlined here why I think a return to O-levels would be a mistake, but I've also tried to identify a few ways it might be possible to improve GCSEs.

My view is that O-levels were designed to filter children, not to assess capabilities. They were consequently responsible for writing off most of the population; for holding back technical and vocational education, and for failing to prepare children for modern society. I have singled out norm-referencing as particularly pernicious. Instead of trying to artificially stratifying society, it's much better to give credit where credit is due.

I agree with Graham Stuart that the major educational challenge for the country is how to improve outcomes for the long tail of performance in the population. Even after the massive (and welcome) investment by Labour, our education system still seems to be reproducing economic and social inequalities, and we all want to know what to do about that.

Among the suggestions for improvements, I've proposed...
  • turning the lower GCSE grades into a Foundation certificate, to be taken by all children;
  • abolishing the remaining SATs;
  • using A-level results rather than O-level results or A-level predictions as the basis for university applications;
  • consulting teachers when big changes are proposed.
As with all big proposals, there should be piloting and evaluation before any decision is taken.

Incidentally, although it's a bit unfair on Gove, here's an entertaining performance by Ed Balls when he was Education Secretary in 2009:



GCSEs: Ladies and gentlemen, we are being played by a spin doctor to rival Alastair Campbell

When Ofqual's regular reviews of GCSE subjects find no significant differences between exam boards or over time, there's no little or no publicity, because such findings don't confirm the angrily-held prejudices of the vocal educational hawks who work for the right-wing press.

Two months ago, however, the new Chief Executive of Ofqual, Glenys Stacey, appointed by Michael Gove last year, began making big headlines about grade inflation being confirmed.

For GCSE, her claims were made on the basis of:

(i) A comparison of Biology in 2003 and 2008: a review over two days by subject specialists of the Biology specifications, assessment materials and samples of student work.

(ii) A very similar comparison of Chemistry.

These reviews were conducted and acted upon in 2009, but only published this year. Both reviews identify examples of good practice and bad practice, things to be tightened up, changes already underway, and the like.

The findings from the Biology review were:
The introduction of How Science Works resulted in significant changes in content, with more stress on methodology, applications, implications and issues, and less coverage of content in other areas. However, this change did not affect the demand of the qualification overall.
The increased use of short papers containing multiple-choice and short-answer questions reduced the demand of written assessments in 2008 when compared with 2003. This also led to discrimination between students becoming more difficult and in particular more limited opportunities for A-grade students to demonstrate their abilities in relation to higher-order skills such as organising information and analysing and interpreting complex data.
The report fed into changes made to the Biology specifications later that year. Problem identified; problem dealt with.

Meanwhile, the findings from the Chemistry review were:
Changes made to the nature and emphasis of the assessment objectives (AOs) – for example increasing the proportion of assessment allocated to application of knowledge and understanding (AO2) – made the qualification more demanding in 2008 than it was in 2003.
The inclusion of How Science Works in the 2008 assessment objectives – introducing concepts such as understanding how scientific evidence is collected, analysed and evaluated in terms of validity and reliability when presenting and justifying conclusions (AO1 and AO3) – made the qualification more demanding in 2008 than it was in 2003.
Variations in the nature of schemes of assessment, for example the relative weighting of external and internal assessment, and the styles and types of assessment instruments (such as type of question or type of task) mean that students are assessed against different combinations of the AOs, which may have an impact on the demand of the qualification experienced by different students.

Again the report fed into changes to the Chemistry specifications in 2009. In particular "The aims and learning outcomes in the new criteria are written specifically for chemistry, rather than being generic across all GCSE science subjects."

These reviews look to have been thorough and useful, helping to keep standards comparable. Hardly earth-shattering, but valuable work. Despite the differences between GCSE and O-levels, there would have been quite similar reviews of O-level exams.

So let's look at how these sober findings were reported (I'm including the mentions of A-level, for completeness, but I'm only discussing GCSEs here).

Sunday Telegraph:
Glenys Stacey, the chief executive of Ofqual, said that after more than a decade of “persistent grade inflation” in exams, which was “impossible to justify”, the value of A-levels and GCSEs have been undermined.
To restore public confidence, wholesale changes were needed to the structure of exams and the culture within exam boards, she warned.
It is the regulator’s first admission that the continuous rise in results has been fuelled in part by the cumulative effect of examiners giving students the “benefit of the doubt”.
... "If you look at the history, we have seen persistent grade inflation for these key qualifications for at least a decade,” she said. “The grade inflation we have seen is virtually impossible to justify and it has done more than anything, in my view, to undermine confidence in the value of those qualifications."
BBC:
GCSEs and A-levels in geography and science are easier than they were 10 years ago, the exams watchdog warns.
... A DfE spokesman said: "Ofqual's reports show evidence of a gradual decline in standards and that the exams system as a whole falls short of commanding the level of confidence we need.
"In particular these reports show that in recent years not enough has been demanded of students, and that they are not being asked to demonstrate real depth and breadth of knowledge.
The Guardian:
GCSE and A-level exams have become easier over the past few years, a review has found, prompting the government to warn of a gradual decline in standards.
The Daily Mail:
A-levels and GCSEs have got easier over the past decade, an official analysis has confirmed.
A series of reports by Ofqual, the exam watchdog, has found that science and geography papers are ‘softer’ and ‘less demanding’.
Teenagers now have more multiple choice questions and papers with less scientific content.
The watchdog warns that the dumbing down is leaving pupils ill-prepared for university and means there is less opportunity for good students to shine.
...
Damian Hinds, a Tory member of the Commons education select committee, said: ‘I doubt there is anyone left who will be surprised to hear that standards were eroded under Labour.
‘Many ways were found to make the results tables look better, and many young people given bad advice to take more “accessible” subjects and supposed GCSE equivalents.
‘Now we know that even within these traditional subjects papers became easier.
‘In the end the people it lets down are the students who worked so hard for those exams, and it is right for young people’s sake that this government is determined to ensure rigour in exams.'
The Daily Telegraph:
GCSEs and A-levels in key subjects have become easier following a 10-year dumbing down of exam papers, according to the standards watchdog.
Ofqual said that changes made to tests over the last decade have “reduced the demand” of qualifications taken by hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren.
In a series of damning reports, it emerged that teenagers were facing more multiple-choice exams and short, structured questions that prevented bright pupils displaying their knowledge.
Many exams had been stripped of core academic content, it emerged, with students required to study less of the syllabus to pass.
The Independent:
... GCSEs have, without question, been devalued by rampant grade inflation and ever-easier questions.

So we start with a calm, sensible qualitative comparison between two years, for Biology and Chemistry, in which some things got a bit harder and some things got a bit easier during a period of change in the curriculum. And the things that were wrong were put right.

But we end with a frenzied conclusion by the news media that there's been a "10-year dumbing down" of all GCSEs and "rampant grade inflation". When someone as even-handed as Stephen Tall believes "the reality is that [GCSEs] are easier than a generation ago", you know that this is a truth now firmly lodged in the consciousness of the political classes.




And lo and behold, just a few weeks later, Michael Gove rides in to save our children by announcing the abolition of GCSEs.

But you know what? Even if there were evidence (which there isn't) of rampant grade inflation, exam boards slashing standards to attract business, examiners selling answers on street corners, and gerbils being awarded 15 grade As at A-level, the answer still wouldn't be O-levels. The answer would be to regulate the exam boards properly.

Ofqual had been doing that up until April this year, but the lack of evidence of declining standards did not fit with Gove's desire to roll back the educational clock to his youth. And suddenly "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy" (to coin a phrase).

Look at each of the statements in the media reports above, particularly the quotes from the "DfE spokesman". Observe the distinct lack of evidence.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are being spun by a master.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The Chancellor's Brain is Borked

Most people agree that action is needed on climate change. But most people also don't want a huge tax hike to pay for that action. Or a larger energy bill. Or a wind turbine at the end of their garden. Or a P45 because their employer is struggling to remain competitive while cutting carbon emissions. So what's to be done?

An inhospitable political climate The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, has quickly succumbed to the simplistic idea encapsulated in the image below. "We're not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business", he says. For him, it's a simple choice between doing the right things for the planet and doing the right things for the economy. Environmental considerations are a burden, and the economy is of overriding importance. Hence the cut in support for wind energy, solar energy, and energy efficiency. He has also been trying to back out of Britain's commitments on cutting carbon emissions, while increasing subsidies for the most energy-intensive, carbon-polluting businesses. The fossil fuel lobby exerts a powerful hold on most parts of the Government, and on many MPs, Labour as well as Conservative.

Image: © lucky - Fotolia.com
Meanwhile (against all the evidence) the talking points of the fossil fuel lobby have become commonplaces: that green subsidies are why our energy bills are so large; that wind turbines cost more energy than they produce; that wind turbine output is too variable for the National Grid; that turbine blades chop up bats and birds; that offshore wind energy is obscenely costly; that solar energy isn't viable in Britain; that the planet is cooling, not warming; that gas, coal and oil can easily be made clean; that shale gas is the answer to all our problems; that renewables can only produce a small fraction of the country's energy needs; and so on.

At the same time, the nuclear industry also exerts a strange hold over Government. Massive public subsidies for past and future nuclear power plants continue. Somehow subsidies for nuclear are fine; subsidies for renewables are not. And somehow (again against all the evidence) the timescales for new nuclear are going to plug the energy gap and cut emissions in time.

I'm not going to debunk all of these absurd anti-green myths here. Folks with more scientific knowledge have done that brilliantly elsewhere, much better than I could. Suffice it to say that there are good economic reasons why the alleged choice between the planet and the economy is a false dichotomy. Stimulating jobs and growth through green initiatives that generate energy and cut emissions will put the economy on a faster path to sustained prosperity.

All of the anti-green chaff distracts from the real discussions there need to be about questions such as...
  • What levels of support for the various renewable and energy efficiency initiatives give Britain the best economic and environmental returns?
  • Where is best to site turbines and energy storage facilities?
  • Which house-building, transport and broadband initiatives will help address both immediate social needs and longer-term energy efficiency?
And in a way, George Osborne has a point: The Stern Report suggested that the action needed might cost up to 2% of GDP. That's not going to win elections.

No, my purpose here in highlighting the Chancellor's attitude and the public mood is not to trash them, but to observe that the political climate is inimical to the action that is urgently needed to save the planet. Moreover, many of the public who accept the need for action seem to think that we can wait until someone comes up with some great technological solution, or that the US and China will sort it out eventually, or that the problem will somehow just go away. Or they just put the problem out of their minds: not so much apathetic as distracted.

This is not for want of attempts to convince the public. The compelling evidence of the risk of a runaway greenhouse effect did not break the stranglehold of denialism and passivity, perhaps because it seemed the stuff of disaster movies rather than reality.

Next, the equally compelling evidence of increasing risks of storms, floods, droughts, desertification and sea level rises also failed to break through into public concerns. Maybe it seemed too remote: in time, geographically, probabilistically.

Subsequently, alerting people to the financial costs of failing to act similarly got nowhere. For every £1 we fail to invest in cleaner technology before 2020, we'd need to spend an additional £4.30 after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions [IEA, 2011]. But no dice: a bird in the hand, and all that.

Now we'll have to wait to see whether people are convinced by the argument that the way out of the economic mire is in promoting green jobs and green growth. I'm not sure this will get through to people either: mindsets are hardening around a austerity-stimulus dichotomy that fails to take account of the interrelatedness of the economy, infrastructure and carbon emissions.

And while there are mass protests on the streets about pensions and about certain companies' tax bills, the idea that anyone but a hardcore of green activists would protest about the Government's failure to protect the planet from environmental disaster is seen as slightly wacky.

When Friends of the Earth is wasting its energies during Rio+20 attacking the leading green advocate in the British Government, you know that this inhospitable political climate is not changing any time soon.

So what's to be done?


Germany gets 20% of its electricity from renewables [Guardian, 30 May], the UK under 10%. What's striking though is who owns the means of production. In Germany, over 65% of renewable energy capacity is owned by individuals or communities: typically home solar panels and wind turbines in farmer's fields. In the UK it was less than 10% in 2010 (although this will have increased slightly in the last 18 months, because of the great success of the Feed-In Tariffs scheme, now sadly hobbled).

So British homes and businesses remain under the thumb of the big energy companies, while a huge number of Germans get to control their own energy, get cheaper energy, cut emissions, and make money on the leftover electricity they feed into the grid.

In Britain we like to grumble about our energy bills (driven higher by the rising cost of imported gas) but quite reasonably object to energy companies trying to plonk turbines down in local beauty spots. Why should we bear the environmental downsides of those turbines if the only benefit we'll see is maybe a small decrease in our bills in a few years time, shared out across the whole country, and only if the energy companies are kind enough to pass on the savings to consumers?

Instead, we can drive those energy bills down by owning local turbines ourselves and reaping the benefits.

The Chairman of the Commons energy committee, Conservative MP Tim Yeo, was almost there in his suggestion that local communities should be "bribed" to accept local wind farms.

But getting thrown a few scraps from the big business trough doesn't sound as great to me as your neighbourhood controlling its own energy, getting cheaper energy, cutting emissions, and making money on the leftover electricity that's fed into the grid.

Instead of so much human energy being wasted in emotionally charged planning battles between electricity companies and concerned residents desperately fighting damage to their neighbourhoods, residents can make their own decisions on where (or whether) to site wind turbines.

And not just that: once local councils realize the benefits of supporting these kinds of local initiatives, perhaps funded by taking a small cut of the income, who knows what innovations in energy generation and efficiency may result? For example, maybe the council would choose to invest in offshore wind farms, as the premium its residents are willing to pay to avoid the local environmental cost of onshore wind [Bassi, Bowen and Fankhauser, 2012]. New advanced modelling of the economic impacts show that, despite the propaganda, offshore wind has huge benefits for GDP, jobs and trade [Cebr, 2012].

Onshore or offshore, local communities would be seizing the initiative, rather than waiting for self-serving energy companies and fugacious politicians; and this would be the beginnings of a move from passivity to action.

Maybe people will then eventually notice the lack of political will at national level, and demand action.

As some wise fellow once wrote:
"Citizens need to be able to experience both the benefits and costs of their decisions locally, or we will continue blithely down the path towards environmental calamity."

How to save the planet

Most people agree that action is needed on climate change. But most people also don't want a huge tax hike to pay for that action. Or a larger energy bill. Or a wind turbine at the end of their garden. Or a P45 because their employer is struggling to remain competitive while cutting carbon emissions. So what's to be done?



An inhospitable political climate


The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, has quickly succumbed to the simplistic idea encapsulated in the above image. "We're not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business", he says. For him, it's a simple choice between doing the right things for the planet and doing the right things for the economy. Environmental considerations are a burden, and the economy is of overriding importance. Hence the cut in support for wind energy, solar energy, and energy efficiency. He has also been trying to back out of Britain's commitments on cutting carbon emissions, while increasing subsidies for the most energy-intensive, carbon-polluting businesses. The fossil fuel lobby exerts a powerful hold on most parts of the Government, and on many MPs, Labour as well as Conservative.

Meanwhile (against all the evidence) the talking points of the fossil fuel lobby have become commonplaces: that green subsidies are why our energy bills are so large; that wind turbines cost more energy than they produce; that wind turbine output is too variable for the National Grid; that turbine blades chop up bats and birds; that offshore wind energy is obscenely costly; that solar energy isn't viable in Britain; that the planet is cooling, not warming; that gas, coal and oil can easily be made clean; that shale gas is the answer to all our problems; that renewables can only produce a small fraction of the country's energy needs; and so on.

At the same time, the nuclear industry also exerts a strange hold over Government. Massive public subsidies for past and future nuclear power plants continue. Somehow subsidies for nuclear are fine; subsidies for renewables are not. And somehow (again against all the evidence) the timescales for new nuclear are going to plug the energy gap and cut emissions in time.

I'm not going to debunk all of these absurd anti-green myths here. Folks with more scientific knowledge have done that brilliantly elsewhere, much better than I could. Suffice it to say that there are good economic reasons why the alleged choice between the planet and the economy is a false dichotomy. Stimulating jobs and growth through green initiatives that generate energy and cut emissions will put the economy on a faster path to sustained prosperity.

All of the anti-green chaff distracts from the real discussions there need to be about questions such as...
  • What levels of support for the various renewable and energy efficiency initiatives give Britain the best economic and environmental returns?
  • Where is best to site turbines and energy storage facilities?
  • Which house-building, transport and broadband initiatives will help address both immediate social needs and longer-term energy efficiency?
And in a way, George Osborne has a point: The Stern Report suggested that the action needed might cost up to 2% of GDP. That's not going to win elections.

No, my purpose here in highlighting the Chancellor's attitude and the public mood is not to trash them, but to observe that the political climate is inimical to the action that is urgently needed to save the planet. Moreover, many of the public who accept the need for action seem to think that we can wait until someone comes up with some great technological solution, or that the US and China will sort it out eventually, or that the problem will somehow just go away. Or they just put the problem out of their minds: not so much apathetic as distracted.

This is not for want of attempts to convince the public. The compelling evidence of the risk of a runaway greenhouse effect did not break the stranglehold of denialism and passivity, perhaps because it seemed the stuff of disaster movies rather than reality.

Next, the equally compelling evidence of increasing risks of storms, floods, droughts, desertification and sea level rises also failed to break through into public concerns. Maybe it seemed too remote: in time, geographically, probabilistically.

Subsequently, alerting people to the financial costs of failing to act similarly got nowhere. For every £1 we fail to invest in cleaner technology before 2020, we'd need to spend an additional £4.30 after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions [IEA, 2011]. But no dice: a bird in the hand, and all that.

Now we'll have to wait to see whether people are convinced by the argument that the way out of the economic mire is in promoting green jobs and green growth. I'm not sure this will get through to people either: mindsets are hardening around a austerity-stimulus dichotomy that fails to take account of the interrelatedness of the economy, infrastructure and carbon emissions.

And while there are mass protests on the streets about pensions and about certain companies' tax bills, the idea that anyone but a hardcore of green activists would protest about the Government's failure to protect the planet from environmental disaster is seen as slightly wacky.

When Friends of the Earth is wasting its energies during Rio+20 attacking the leading green advocate in the British Government, you know that this inhospitable political climate is not changing any time soon.

So what's to be done?


Germany gets 20% of its electricity from renewables [Guardian, 30 May], the UK under 10%. What's striking though is who owns the means of production. In Germany, over 65% of renewable energy capacity is owned by individuals or communities: typically home solar panels and wind turbines in farmer's fields. In the UK it was less than 10% in 2010 (although this will have increased slightly in the last 18 months, because of the great success of the Feed-In Tariffs scheme, now sadly hobbled).

So British homes and businesses remain under the thumb of the big energy companies, while a huge number of Germans get to control their own energy, get cheaper energy, cut emissions, and make money on the leftover electricity they feed into the grid.

In Britain we like to grumble about our energy bills (driven higher by the rising cost of imported gas) but quite reasonably object to energy companies trying to plonk turbines down in local beauty spots. Why should we bear the environmental downsides of those turbines if the only benefit we'll see is maybe a small decrease in our bills in a few years time, shared out across the whole country, and only if the energy companies are kind enough to pass on the savings to consumers?

Instead, we can drive those energy bills down by owning local turbines ourselves and reaping the benefits.

The Chairman of the Commons energy committee, Conservative MP Tim Yeo, was almost there in his suggestion that local communities should be "bribed" to accept local wind farms.

But getting thrown a few scraps from the big business trough doesn't sound as great to me as your neighbourhood controlling its own energy, getting cheaper energy, cutting emissions, and making money on the leftover electricity that's fed into the grid.

Instead of so much human energy being wasted in emotionally charged planning battles between electricity companies and concerned residents desperately fighting damage to their neighbourhoods, residents can make their own decisions on where (or whether) to site wind turbines.

And not just that: once local councils realize the benefits of supporting these kinds of local initiatives, perhaps funded by taking a small cut of the income, who knows what innovations in energy generation and efficiency may result? For example, maybe the council would choose to invest in offshore wind farms, as the premium its residents are willing to pay to avoid the local environmental cost of onshore wind [Bassi, Bowen and Fankhauser, 2012]. New advanced modelling of the economic impacts show that, despite the propaganda, offshore wind has huge benefits for GDP, jobs and trade [Cebr, 2012].

Onshore or offshore, local communities would be seizing the initiative, rather than waiting for self-serving energy companies and fugacious politicians; and this would be the beginnings of a move from passivity to action.

Maybe people will then eventually notice the lack of political will at national level, and demand action.

As some wise fellow once wrote:
"Citizens need to be able to experience both the benefits and costs of their decisions locally, or we will continue blithely down the path towards environmental calamity."



Image: © lucky - Fotolia.com

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Exeter's burning theatre dreams

Today's Express and Echo contains three letters noting that Exeter City Council has plans for the redevelopment of the decaying Bus Station site: plans that do not include the possibility of a 1000-seater theatre for the city.

Before considering the merits of this proposal, one should note Exeter's poignant history in relation to theatre. Three of its theatres, all situated close to the current Bus Station site, were destroyed by fire in the 19th century.


A tragic history


As the excellent Exeter Memories website recounts, The New Theatre in Bedford Street was very successful, one highlight being Edmund Kean's production of The Merchant of Venice. But the building lasted only 30 years, destroyed in 1820 when a gas-lit chandelier set fire to the rafters.
The New Theatre (1787-1820),
Bedford Street



This building was replaced by the first Exeter theatre to be called The Theatre Royal. As with many Victorian theatres, the new invention limelight was installed. Alas, the oxygen-hydrogen mix needed for limelight was a big fire hazard, and the building was destroyed by fire in 1885.
The first Theatre Royal (1821-1885),
Bedford Street



A new 1500-seater Theatre Royal, designed by Charles Phipps, was built at the top of Longbrook Street. This building had a short life, and a tragic end. The story of the worst theatre fire in British history is told at Exeter Memories, the BBC and the Arthur Lloyd website. 186 died.




The second Theatre Royal (1886-7),
Longbrook Street

The Exeter Theatre Fire of 1887 was one of the events that led to Parliament introducing strict fire regulations for all British theatres. The legal requirement for a safety curtain is an example.



The Exeter Theatre Fire of 1887

The replacement theatre, seating around 1000, was built in the same place in Longbrook Street, with Sir Henry Irving providing input into the design, and it opened in 1889.


The third Theatre Royal (1889-1962),
Longbrook Street
The Arthur Lloyd website notes:
"This, the third Theatre Royal in Exeter, had a long and successful career, staging everything from Music Hall, Drama, and Ballet to Pantomime...
However, like so many Theatres around the Country, by the 1950's the Theatre was converted for use as a Cinema and by 1962 it had closed down completely.
The Theatre was demolished the same year, 1962, and an office building was constructed on the site."
In this potted history of Exeter theatre destruction, we should also probably note the building that stood for over 100 years where Boots is now, very close to the location of the Theatre Royal. Concerts were held there 1820-1908, when it was known as the Royal Public Rooms. As The Hippodrome, it was a 1000-seater theatre 1908-1929, a music hall venue where Charlie Chaplin is said to have performed. It then became the Plaza Cinema, but was destroyed in the Blitz of 4 May 1942.

Victoria Hall (1873-1919) in Queen Street had a similar changing function from 2000-seater public hall to theatre to cinema, before burning down in 1919. Meanwhile the 1000-seater Queen's Hall (1912-40) in Paris Street became the Palladium cinema in 1921 and didn't survive the Blitz.

Incidentally, not really theatre, but looking at the variety of venues used in Exeter for pop and rock, I was amazed to discover visits by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Dusty Springfield, Roy Orbison and the Walker Brothers.


Today's Exeter theatre


In 2012 we have no large theatre, but in some ways a more flourishing theatre scene than ever:









Tomorrow's Exeter theatre?


Lyn Gardner of The Guardian wrote in April, in an article entitled "The future of theatre? Look towards Exeter"...
"Exeter offers an opportunity to see how a non-building-based producing outfit, Kaleider, led by Seth Honnor, formerly of Theatre Bristol, might deliver a new artistic vision by working in tandem with: existing buildings such as the Northcott and the Phoenix; companies such as Theatre Alibi; young, unfunded upstarts such as the Bike Shed; as well as its University and organisations such as Wide Awake Devon. The money it gets over three years will be used to animate the city (a participatory project called Ancient Sunlight will take place over four days at Easter 2015) and take part in a collaborative artistic conversation with local artists and audiences about the kind of work they want to make and see. The challenges for Kaleider will be considerable, but its successful bid demonstrates that the Arts Council is prepared to be bold. Bravo – and the best of luck."
I'm not sure. I don't think it's an either-or. The productions of Exeter's small theatres happen to suit my tastes. But one of today's letters in the Express and Echo points out that we don't get The Lion King, The Mousetrap or Oliver. Plymouth and Bristol get the big productions and concert orchestras because they have the theatres of the necessary size. Another makes the point that we are already well served by shops and swimming pools. A third recalls the Theatre Royal and its status as a cultural focal point.

The leader of Exeter City Council, Pete Edwards, rejects the idea of a 1000+ seater theatre in Exeter, on the basis that Exeter is too small. He is quoted as saying "We have a big theatre in Plymouth and if we had one similar in Exeter I think it would destroy both."

So on the one hand we have the argument that touring companies wouldn't go to both Exeter and Plymouth, and that audiences would be too small here. And on the other hand, we have the argument that a theatre able to attract national and international touring companies would bring more visitors and prestige to Exeter, and enhance the cultural and economic life of the city in the evening.

Having originally being strongly in favour of a new theatre, I put some of these points on Twitter to Councillor Paul Bull, who is a theatre sound designer. He makes a powerful case that it's not the right time for this kind of initiative.

I'm still not sure: I think it'd be good to have a study of the economic viability. But I'm hoping Paul will blog about the current state of theatre in Exeter at some point, because he knows far more about this subject than I do. But in the meantime, I will leave you with some collated tweets of his thoughts on #Theatre4Exeter:


Storify: Paul Ball on #Theatre4Exeter

Update 24 June:

I've received via Twitter some positive responses to this post. I was particularly pleased to get this from Seth Honnor:

I'd also like to highlight Ignite: Exeter's Festival of Theatre 2012, which begins this week.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Come on Lib Dems: what would Birgitte Nyborg do?

I'm often amazed at reviews of episodes of political dramas such as The West Wing, Borgen, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones. Reviewing such episodes without discussing the choices faced by the protagonists is like reviewing Rocky without mentioning boxing. There may be more going on than just the obvious subject matter, but you really ought to pay some attention to what's in front of your nose.

Being fiction, all the available choices would typically have dreadful consequences. But the dramatic resolution would hinge on some wily fellow coming up with a brilliant choice that no-one had thought of. A lot of the fun is in trying (usually failing) to work out what that choice might be.

Sometimes, of course, there is no brilliant choice, and we watch sadly as pragmatic protagonists cope badly with trying to minimise the damage of the least worst compromise, when it might have been more satisfying to go down in a blaze of fiery defiance.

I occasionally wonder whether we are all getting better at political analysis because of the skills we are honing in fictional scenarios.

And then I read the newspapers.

But what I find interesting about problems like the Jeremy Hunt vote, is that we often seem to prefer to present our real life political choices as a little bit more black-and-white than the fiction. It's as if we'd like politics to be a series of Doctor Who-style moral choices in which if we'd only stick to our principles, be nice to odd-looking creatures, trust the Doctor's got some trick with a sonic screwdriver up his sleeve, and be jolly brave, it'll all be alright in the end.

I don't know.

I couldn't live by the morality of the dastardly folk in The West Wing, Borgen, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones. Nor, for that matter, those in Doctor Who. But, at the same time, it doesn't end very well either for
*** !!!! SPOILERS FOR ALL THE ABOVE SERIES !!!! ***
these honourable folk.
*** SPOILERS END ***

On the Hunt issue in particular, I've no idea what Lib Dems should do. (I told you I was bad at guessing the dénouements to political dramas!)
[I'd probably propose an amendment deleting Labour's wording and replace it with something essentially identical that sounds emollient ("... recommend the Secretary of State is given a chance to clear his name by enabling an independent review of the facts by Sir Alex Allan..." or some such) but still achieves the right result, while saving face for the Conservatives ("Following sensible advice from the Deputy Prime Minister, I have decided to support this amendment, in the interests of ensuring that the Secretary of State is treated fairly.") But I doubt such a move would work because I think Cameron is implicated more than we know.]
However I note that it costs Lib Dem bloggers little to take the moral high ground (1, 2, 3), whereas Nick Clegg and the other ministers have the responsibility of living with the realistic consequences of such a stance.

Now Clegg's political nous is far from reliable, in my view; but I hear no-one putting a case for "We must back Cameron on this one, to ensure our more important policies get through".

And that worries me a bit. It shouldn't be beyond the pale to consider such positions.

It's a pragmatic approach, sure. And that can fail badly, as we saw in the case of tuition fees. But sometimes flexibility can help advance the greater good, as I think is illustrated by
*** !!!! SPOILERS FOR ALL THE ABOVE SERIES !!!! ***
these wily folk.
*** SPOILERS END ***

This continuing disconnect - between a smart but idealistic rank-and-file on the one hand, and a pragmatic but fitful leadership on the other - cannot end well.

Update 13 June 3:30pm

I still haven't seen anyone in the Lib Dem blogosphere arguing to vote with the Tories on this one. However, Stephen Tall has put forward the argument that an abstention makes sense because "We should conserve our energies and furrowed brows for issues that matter to folk beyond SW1".

And Stephen also noted sweetly on Twitter:

Meanwhile, backbench MP Adrian Sanders - not a rank-and-file member of course, but far from a slavish follower of edicts from the leadership - has made a similar argument to Stephen's.

It's true that the balance of Lib Dem comments on LDV and Twitter seem to be strongly in favour of voting for Labour's motion, but I think these reasoned articles by Stephen and Adrian may well cause some to allow the value of this point of view on future issues.

The last word though is from Peter Doyle: "Good question! What would Birgitte Nyborg do? I imagine she'd 'invite' Jeremy Hunt to become Interior Minister for Greenland...."