Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived

A subtle change has been made to the comments links, so they no longer pop up. Does this in any way help with the problem about comments not appearing on permalinked posts, readers?

Update: seemingly not

Update: Oh yeah!

Friday, May 11, 2007

That Big School

Update: Check out the comments section for a really nasty nerdfight. The tipping point (ie, the first exchange to contain nothing at all about the actual subject) has been reached so I confidently expect it to get a lot more exciting. Careful readers will note that the cowardice, homosexuality or dishonesty of me and Dan Hardie does not actually imply anything about schools in Peterborough one way or the other.

I've decided to take the unpopular side of this question, again, this time simply because the blogospheric reaction to it has been a) so unanimous and b) based on a small number of media reports (the Times and BBC stories on May 6, plus a Cambridge Evening News one on May 8). This is soooo often a source of errors, because it is quite likely that the original story contains errors or stitch-ups (the Times is in my experience particularly bad for this; the Mail much worse and I am surprised that the Mail doesn't show up on Google news as the original source of this story) and they get magnified by Chinese whispers. I'm not claiming to be completely innocent of this, but it is actually a really bad intellectual habit to automatically gainsay new ideas, and an extremely bad habit to do so on the basis of newspaper summaries of them. It is often a useful prophylactic to this behaviour to preface some of your statements with the phrase "If we assume that this report in the Times is a complete and accurate representation of the situation then …" (another useful prophylactic is to check whether you agree with someone like Libby Purves).

It also strikes me as odd that there is so little local outrage at this proposal. The "superschool" plan has been around for at least a year (update: actually the plans have been available for view in Peterborough since July 2005 update: no, even earlier, there have been artists' impressions available since 2004). There has been a bit of controversy about a few things to do with the plan, but nobody in Peterborough has, over the three year period that they've known roughly what the thing was going to look like, started any sort of campaign about it that has achieved enough traction to register on google.

Indeed, there is something of a shortage of local colour in these media stories. In the Times (update: and in the Peterborough Evening Telegraph, same one both times), one local parent is quoted, saying that her son was "devastated when he discovered he would not be able to kick a football around at lunchtime" (the sport of football keeps showing up in these stories, also a bit of a red flag for me since the sport of football is such a rich source of sentimental bullshit). The only other quote in the Times story (other than the quotes from Alan McMurdo, the headmaster) is from a headteacher in Liverpool, who also mentions football.

The BBC report does a big deal quoting Tim Gill, an "independent play expert" (ie consultant) who has written a book called "No Fear: Growing up in a risk-averse society" but nevertheless does not appear to be a Furediite. Tim Gill is a bona fide expert on playgrounds, but quotes like "crazy" and "bordering on inhuman" do not usually come from people who have carefully considered something, and this looks a bit like a rentaquote. Nobody else is quoted at all.

The Cambridge Evening News might have been thought to be pretty well placed to tap into this vein of local outrage. However, it looks as if their story has been generated after a press release from four Cambridge city councillors (ie not representing Peterborough), plus a ring round of MPs.

It is hard to tell as their site search is a bit frustrating, but Peterborough Today (update: actually, I think the newspaper is called the Peterborough Evening Telegraph) does not seem to mention any local campaign against this school and I am not sure that they have done a story about the no-playground thing at all (update: oh no, they did, but it appeared on 2 May and is nearly word for word identical to the Times one. What's going on?) There is an online petition against the school with 127 signatures (most of them locals from Peterborough, many of them kids), but it was created on May 7, postdating the Times and BBC reports and therefore is as likely to be a part of the echo chamber as a genuine reflection of local views. There is a very, very strong smell of media creation to this story, as far as I am concerned. That doesn't mean that it won't turn into a genuine local issue of course, but that doesn't appear to be how it began.

In any case, I am not so sure that the media reports of no playgrounds and no playtimes are accurate. The plans of the site certainly contain quite a few largish greenish flat things with no buildings on them; I am not an expert on what constitutes a "playground" these days but they certainly don't look like educational space. And regarding timetabling, if you look at the proposed school day on that website, you can see that although there is no "playtime" scheduled, "Period 3" is nearly two and a half hours and all the other periods are an hour and a half (Period 4 is marked "Enrichment/Extension", which I am not sure what it means).

In their general FAQ they say "The large numbers of pupils attending the Academy will necessitate the use of a flexible and staggered day that will enable the Academy to operate without the need for very large numbers of pupils moving around the buildings at any one time". This suggests that they are not planning on having hour-and-a-half double lessons back to back with one another. I would have thought that this most likely means that groups of children smaller than the whole school will end up with their unsupervised breaks at various times spread over the day, but there isn't a big single playtime in which all the classes chuck out. It would not at all be out of the general run of things for someone trying to explain this concept to a journalist to have been quoted as saying the things that Alan McMurdo is quoted as having said.

All the architects' drawings in the brochure and on the website seem to show pupils hanging around and socialising with one another in largish public spaces; on p5 of the prospectus they are actually lounging around on the lawn. Could it be that the Times has got the wrong end of the stick? Could it be that the blogosphere has covered itself in glory once more? Hmmmm; I will reserve judgement for the time being. I will simply add this - to draw any firm conclusions about McMurdo the headmaster's personality and competence (as opposed to taking the piss out of him for talking about "hydrating" or similar, for which there is no excuse) is to implicitly assume he has been quoted fairly, accurately and in context by the Times and this is really quite a strong assumption to make.

Update: More from the Times. (Actually the previous article was the Sunday Times). It looks like I am right about playgrounds, but was wrong to suspect them of a stitchup about playtimes; McMurdo is in favour of a pretty packed school day, with short and supervised breaks. I am not sure how this fits in with the illustrations which might potentially be quite misleading.

But anyway, "If we assume that this report in the Times is a complete and accurate representation of the situation then" is it necessarily so bad?

Here is the website of the ScholaEuropea in Luxembourg. It has 3802 pupils. Here is a map of the school. It does not appear to have much of a playground (zooming around on the google maps satellite photo suggests that there is a bit of a playground outside the "Maternelle" area, but there certainly doesn't appear to be the sort of playground you would need for 3802 pupils to all play in at once; there doesn't appear to be any area suitable for playing football on). It has a few lawns and outside areas between its several buildings, rather like the Thomas Deacon Academy. It isn't a school which has been foisted on the deprived peasants of Luxembourg, by the way; it's the largest of the European Schools, for children of EU officials. They are all pretty big.

It is, of course, 73% larger than the proposed "Thomas Deacon Academy" about which we are all a fluster. If you take out the pupils in the "Maternelle" and the primary school, then ScholaEuropea is about the same size as the Thomas Deacon Academy at 1948 pupils, but I'm not sure that this is a valid thing to do. In any case, it's a big school without much of a playground, and although I can't find any plan of the TDA (update: I did, see above), the stylised one on its website looks not entirely unlike the ScholaEuropea. It also offers the International Baccalaureate in the sixth form … hmmm, it's almost as if somebody concerned with the development of this school has been looking around at international comparisons, isn't it?

I've no real idea whether a school as big as this can work, but the question of whether it can or it can't is an empirical one, where the answer ought to involve rather more evidence and rather less prejudice than we've seen so far. I am pretty sure that the plans for breaks in the day isn't as described in the Times, but I don't know if the actual plan they have is any more sensible. I am in general rather suspicious of schemes that can only work if they have really talented managers at the top, preferring ones that are robust enough to handle merely adequate administration. But, sometimes you have to give people their head, and talented people (which Alan McMurdo certainly seems to be, from a brief google search – he's one of the best people in the country for science education) need to be allowed to develop

It's a reversible investment anyway. If it turns out that the kids are dropping of tiredness, it is not exactly going to be the hardest thing on earth to stick a couple of breaks in the day. There is a whacking great field and sports centre (including, good God, a football pitch! The nation is saved!) on that site, part of which could be repurposed to a playground; there might even be some neighbouring land they could buy. Worst case scenario, the whole thing looks like it would make a decent Travelodge so the money will not be entirely wasted.

At the very least, I'm making a plea for some sort of intellectual charity here (from you lot, that is, not from me; I gave at the office). It is true that some ideas are so obviously stupid that they can be dismissed without careful consideration of the budget plans or the academic literature. But not so many as you'd think, and it certainly makes sense to have a little bit of a look to make sure that your initial information was representative and not spun. I'd hate the anti-managerialism to fall into "common-sense" populism, because that is the one form of organisation that's actually known to be worse than managerialism. If we're going to have a whole load of rules saying what kinds of schools can and can't be built, with these rules being based not on scientific evidence but on "common sense" rules developed by people extrapolating their own personalities into management principles, then how the heck is that not managerialist?


52 comments this item posted by the management 5/11/2007 04:03:00 AM

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