From David Maughan Brown in York: Investing in a whelk stall?

August 16th

In the unlikely event of future political scientists or historians perusing this diary in future years, they might, depending on their political leanings, be inclined to start making deductions about the effect of lockdown on the mental health of those who have been locked down.  Her Majesty’s Government, duly elected by a mature electorate to grace the illustrious benches of the Palace of Westminster, the Mother of Parliaments, in December 2019 couldn’t possibly have been as utterly hopeless as diarists have tried to make out.  The grumpy carping must have been an irrationally resentful response on the part of mentally fragile people, who happened to have nothing better to do than write diaries, to the wholly rational decision on the part of government to lock them down for their own good.  The tempting alternative would have been to allow a ‘herd immunity’ strategy to sort them out and save billions on state pensions at the same time.  You can never please some people.

A rapid run-through of a random day’s coverage of ‘Home’ news, in this instance yesterday’s, August 15th, by the Independent, a broadly liberal and by no stretch of the imagination radically leftist newspaper (not that ‘paper’ has much to do with an exclusively digital compilation of news-reporting and commentary) might give the historians pause to reconsider that diagnosis.   With the exception of a nod in the direction of VJ-Day, a story about a man who nearly lost a leg as a result of being bitten by a ‘false widow’ spider, and an article on the implications for the Arts of a premature termination of the current furlough arrangements for employees, the rest of the coverage focuses entirely on four issues:  the quarantine regulations, in relation to France in particular; the government’s handling of various NHS related issues; the A-Level debacle; and the on-going situation with cross-channel migrants.  I’ve written about these individually (in some instances several times), but the cumulative impact when they are all extensively covered on the same day is impressive.

The photograph on the front page is of the queues of people at the airport at Nice trying desperately to get a flight back to UK in time for them to arrive before the magic 4am deadline.  The editorial takes this as its topic for the day, suggesting very mildly that, given the implications of 14 days of quarantine, a collective shrug on the part of government and ‘Well, you knew the risks when you went’, isn’t good enough. It goes on to suggest that 30 hours notice of a deadline, generally poor communication, and weak quarantine enforcement, in a context in which the Cummings episode shows that the rules apply to some but not others, aren’t conducive to public confidence or compliance.  For my own part, the 4.00am Saturday deadline left me wondering which particular bit of science the government was following that dictated that anyone who set foot back on British soil at 3.59am was bound to be Covid-free, but anyone who did so at 4.01am needed to go into quarantine for 14 days to protect the rest of us.

Where the NHS is concerned the reports focus on the government’s declared intention to keep the outcomes of inquiries into the Covid-related deaths of 620 health and care workers secret; the recall from NHS hospitals of 200,000 defective gowns, following closely on the heels of the recall of the 50 million defective face masks; and the quiet removal of 1.3 million tests from the running total of coronavirus tests nationally as a tacit admission of double-counting.

The on-going debacle over the A-level ‘results’ was covered in four separate articles, one of which predicted similar levels of chaos when the GCSE ‘results’, based on the same algorithm are released this coming week.   It is anticipated that up to 2 million results are likely to be downgraded, with the examining bodies already swamped by appeals against the A-level outcomes.  As one commentator put it in relation to the A-levels: ‘Unless Gavin Williamson [the Secretary of State for Education] can set up an appeals procedure that resolves the worst cases within days, he will destroy any illusions that his government could run a whelk stall.’

One article on the migrants who have been crossing the English Channel in small boats in their tens and twenties during the calm weather was written by May Bulman, and focuses on our bombastic Prime Minister’s assertion that “this is a very bad and stupid and dangerous and criminal thing to do.”  Bulman draws on legal opinion in pointing out that there isn’t any legal obligation on asylum seekers to seek asylum in the first EU country they arrive in, and that they aren’t, in fact, committing any unlawful act in crossing the channel in small boats to seek asylum.  She argues that making the crossing is neither ‘bad’ nor ‘stupid’ if they are seeking asylum and choosing a country in which they would be joining known communities, and there are no alternative routes to do so.  Bulman quotes Frances Timberlake, coordinator at the Refugee Women’s Centre in Calais and Dunkirk, in this regard: ‘I would use stupid to describe most of the policies [in this regard] the UK has proposed so far, which have totally failed.’

The anti-migrant rhetoric is obviously intended to pander to the xenophobic right wing of the Tory party and the populace as a whole.  Any one of the other three debacles – the mishandling of the response to Covid-19 and its impact on the NHS, the A-levels disaster, and the quarantine issue – should, one might have thought, be enough to sink any government without trace in the opinion polls.   Future historians, even those sceptical about the mental health of those of us who have been self-isolating for five months, seem likely to agree.  But, while Johnson’s own credit rating is falling, the polls suggest that responses to his government as a whole seem to remain astonishingly little affected.  So anyone up for investing in a government-run whelk stall? 

From David Maughan Brown in York: No better way?

August 13th

I hope regular readers, if there are such, will bear with me if I ride another hobby-horse off in pretty much the same direction as I did in my last entry, and write about exams again.  My excuse would be that having spent 12 years at high school and university being expected to write them, and my entire 43 year working life at universities either setting and marking them or dealing with the copious fall-out from them, I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about them.

So, half-listening to the Today programme yesterday, I sat up and took notice when our callow Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, who always manages to look like an adolescent rabbit in the headlights when interviewed on TV, articulated his (and by implication the government’s) key principle of educational faith when questioned by Nick Robinson:  “There is no better way of doing assessment than exams.”   In case we hadn’t been listening properly the first time, he reassured us later in the interview, not once but twice in successive sentences, that we had indeed heard him correctly: “No system we put in place is going to be as good as exams.  Every system we put in place is going to be second best to that.”  So lots of equal seconds, then, but no question whatever about what gets the gold medal.

However imperfect exams are, it has to be admitted that they will in many instances be better than assessing students via an algorithm that can somehow manage to increase the proportion of pupils achieving A* and A grades at private schools by twice as much as that at comprehensives.  Just as racist computers don’t programme themselves, so algorithms aren’t self-generating.  Our Prime Minister has declared the system to be ‘robust’, which his minders should know by now would fatally undermine any lingering confidence any half-intelligent observer might have had in it.  But anyone who has ever been involved in education knows that three-hour examinations, which is what Williamson is talking about, are a very much less than perfect way of assessing much beyond a student’s capability at writing three hour exams. And three-hour exams tend not to be one of the frequently encountered hazards of working life.  In an examination in the humanities, for example, if what you are looking for is a student with a disposition not prone to nervousness and the ability to spew large quantities of verbiage, much of it memorised, onto paper in a wholly arbitrary three hours, then examinations are your bag.  Quite what that ability is supposed to be useful for is not entirely clear.

Many parents would be very happy to let Williamson know that some children are very much better suited to the peculiarly artificial exigencies of sit-down examinations than others.   My own siblings are a case in point.   I was relatively good at exams because I enjoyed the challenge, had worked out how to work the system, particularly with regard to what was likely to come up in an exam, and in those days had a half-decent memory.   As an undergraduate I devoted about as much time to honing my bridge skills as to covering the extensive lists of set books (which I didn’t), and good results were in no way an accurate reflection of my knowledge of the curriculum as a whole.  My sister, who is no less intelligent and capable than I am and was vastly more diligent, has a brain that functions in a different way from mine, never came anywhere close to completing any exam paper, and consequently came out with consistently lower results, which didn’t stop her from becoming a successful computer programmer.  One of my brothers is dyslexic, was at school in an era when teachers had no idea how to identify or respond to dyslexia and assumed, wholly incorrectly, that he just wasn’t very bright.  He was petrified by exams and, unsurprisingly, didn’t get good results, which didn’t stop him from having a successful career as a primary school teacher.  And our Secretary of State thinks there is no better way of doing assessment than exams.

On top of their artificiality, the stress and anxiety they occasion, and the questions they raise about what they are supposed to be testing, exams also have unintended and pernicious consequences in encouraging both a narrowing of the curriculum and ‘teaching to the test’ (see nesta link below).  Continuous assessment would be a vastly ‘better way of doing assessment than exams’ if one could be sure precisely who it is one is assessing.  The only thing sit-down exams have going for them, pace their full-throated endorsement by the likes of Williamson, is that with proper security you can, at least, be quite sure who is responsible for the answers.   In that single respect they are the least-worst of all the many alternatives.  But, as I suggested in my last entry, the current A-level shambles is forcing people to confront exam and assessment-related issues in a way they haven’t had to before, and there may be hope for a revisiting of continuous assessment on the horizon.   It has been suggested that developments in Artificial Intelligence may eventually make sit-down exams obsolete (https://www.nesta.org.uk/feature/ten-predictions-2019/beginning-end-exams/). One can only hope so.  In the meantime our Prime Minister and our Secretary of State for Education, among others, might be well advised to start praying that continuous assessment via AI is never applied to their performance.