Lies, Damn Lies and Numbers…

18 08 2009

Two interesting historical posts coming out of the Indepenent today. I’ll write something about the second later, but for now I wish to consider Robert Fisk’s comment on the number of British casualties in Afghanistan.

The full copy of Fisk’s thoughts is to be found here. It is emotively entitled “Why these deaths hit home as hard as the Somme”. Upon seeing such a headline I will admit to growing fearful about the content of the article. Where was Fisk going with such an ill-considered banner line? I actually disagree with the implication of such a headline, I think that these Afghanistan deaths hit home harder because of many things, not least the nature of the world media. That’s by the by though.

The real point that Fisk made, and it is something I agree wholeheartedly with him about, is this one. He writes it pretty succinctly so I’ll simply transcribe his words:

And let’s just remind ourselves of the casualty figures. We’ve lost just over 200 soldiers- admittedly most of them in the past 14 months- in a war that has lasted for eight years. In the Second World War, which lasted for almost six years, Britain lost 650 men on D-Day, 6 June 1944, alone. And let’s go back to the Great War. On the first day of the Somme- 1 July 1916- we lost almost  19,500 dead. That’s almost a hundred times our Afghan dead in 24 hours.

A good point well put I feel. The deaths in Afghanistan are, of course, tragic, but they are small fry compared to many other battles, wars, military engagements made by the British. The word ‘tragic’ above was carefully picked as to echo Stalin’s famous thoughts on war dead, paraphrased “one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic“. This I feel has a certain resonance when considering the parallels between the two conflicts. The reason there is such a media outpouring when another British soldier falls is because the event is a comparative rarity.

The British army have grown a lot better at engaging an enemy, and because of this the death rate has fallen. However, this falling death rate has meant that more time can be given to each dead person. We are told their names, their ages, their private life. We are told this because we can be told. The media can keep up, and play with the public emotions of hearing of one more dead person. They simply couldn’t during WW1. The soldiers were falling in such numbers that no-one really knew who was dead, and who wasn’t. Soldiers were lost during battles, and only inaccurate numbers could suffice as to the number of dead on any given day of the war.

The real point is that we should actually be thankful that only 201 troops have died during eight years of conflict in Afghanistan. There is, of course, the lingering question of whether Britain should be in the country in the first place, but that’s a whole different issue. The result is that the soldiers are. And they’ve only lost 201 of their own through the course of eight years of action. That’s actually a pretty remarkable statistic. That’s 201 deaths in 2850 days (roughly). That’s mightly impressive really. The army should be commended for this, not chastised. Of course these soldiers should be remembered too, but the army should not be attacked for losing men, it is after all, the nature of the beast.

Discriminate This…

9 08 2009

So our esteemed temporary leader (with Harman out of the country the buck stops with him) Lord Mandleson has announced he is considering the idea of giving poorer students a grade boost to help them compete for places at top universities.

This is rubbish.

All this idea does is confirm the view that there is a problem with access to education. It does nothing to provide a sensible long-term solution to the matter. It is yet more proof that positive discrimination is live and kicking in the UK at the moment. I have written about this before, and it is still something which really irks me.

Ok, so there is a problem with who has access to various levels of education. Again, I have written about the growing pressures on the university system before. However, a short-term, blind-sighted view that Mandleson appears to be appropriating here seems so painfully naive. It is simply a quick fix, designed more as a vote winning suggestion than anything substantial to do with policy. I say that for two reasons. The first is simple, the Labour party need all the votes they can get at the up-coming election. By throwing this into the water, they have something with which to attract voters back with.

The second reason seems equally simple, but therein lies my own concerns. It is simply that the idea seems very unconsidered. As the BBC article points out, there is a whole middle group of society who will suffer more from this idea and will be outcast from the better universities simply because there would be a quota of poorer students who ‘have’ to go to any given university. Finally there is the problem of what to do with those richer students/families who study hard, get good grades but have to go to universities lower in the rankings simply because the government has decided that it needs a greater social mix at the top universities.

The suggestion is ludicrous, and shouldn’t get any further than this. However, it will, if not in this form, then in some other. And it will remain stupidly annoying. Positive discrimination is here to stay as long as the Labour party decree it so and lead by such a poor example. It will never, ever solve any problems, and will always be a short-term solution to a larger, longer-term issue. It is nothing more than a daub of paint casually thrown at a wall to hide the two-foot wide crack.

What Do We Learn?

5 08 2009

Firstly, let me apologise for hugely infrequent blogging of late. The last month has been a touch hectic, and hence blogging has fallen to the bottom of my list of priorites. Mind you, at least I’m still here, something I’m not sure can be said of the folks over on the BULS blog.

Anywho, I just wished to write something about the Independent‘s reporting of the SAT’s figures which have come out. I’m guessing (but not knowing) that most other newspapers will have picked up on this too, with some making more of a point out of it than others. Folks, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but SAT’s figures have fallen for the first time in 15 years. Which means that we need to begin panicking because 46,000 11-year-olds cannot read and 39% of students “failed to master the ‘three R’s”.

Except, I remain confused. I thought, given yearly rises in GCSE and A Level results, that exams are getting easier. Aren’t they? Every year another record is broken, and I expect that the results, due out in the next couple of weeks, will again have record levels of something. Students aren’t getting cleverer, the system is making it look that way, or so those who argue about the vaildity of exams claim.

Now, I’m aware that there is a huge difference between SAT’s at 11, and GCSE’s at 16. However, if we are to accept that 11 year olds are getting worse at reading, writing and arithmetic (whoever coined the phrase the ‘three R’s’ obviously had as many problems as the kids do when it comes to spelling), how can we explain the yearly increase in GCSE result averages?

Simply put, the whole thing should be taken with a huge dose of salt. The media jumps on figures (as one wise man once put it, “people can come up with statistics to prove anything. 14% of all people know that”), and either the school kids are over-achieving because of the inadequacies of the system, or they are failing because of the inadequacies of themselves. There seems to be no middle ground, as Richard Gardner writes in his comment on the story in the same paper.

For my part, I’m not to sure about the exams getting ‘easier’. I think back a few years and remember how hard I worked for three consecutive years. That, I’m sure, was not easy (unless there’s some new-fangled dictionary that the kids are learning from these days). What I do think is that the students are learning to play the system better. By which I mean they are learning how to write an answer, rather than how to get the right answer. They are learning exam technique rather than the information to get the right answer. By getting the technique right, the rest becomes irrelevant. In history for example, you don’t have to write a good essay, just construct one (introduction – outline your argument, prioritise your points, explain why one is more or less important, conclude), if you follow the structure, you could, by and large, write rubbish and still do well enough to pass. In maths, you do not have to get the right answer, but demonstrate a way you would use to get the answer, after all, so we were told, you get marks for your ‘working’.

This sort of thing gets taught as much as the correct information, and this is a fault of the system. Whilst it is true that technique is important, it should be that the correct information is of more importance. In maths you should be taught the correct formulae, in history, the correct dates, people etc. This should be the core of teaching, not technique (I remember having a few English classes dedicated to ‘exam technique’ in the months prior to my exams). There is too much emphasis placed on technique, and this is a fault I think exists throughout the system.

There are, of course, other issues with the SAT’s tests and their role in education. I do not wish to talk about these now, simply because there are too many issues to cover here. I will leave it with a quote from Garner’s piece, “it is almost refreshing to know that there is a test where results can down, as well as up.