On the A level fiasco

A level results day yesterday was a very unusual day. There has been a lot of comment, a lot of confusion, and a lot of ‘noise’. It’s not yet clear whether we’ve seen the final word on the subject from the government: it’s still possible that last minute amendments could be made to the process for generating grades, perhaps to parallel what has already happened in Scotland.

In this post, I want to question some features of the coverage of the day itself in newspapers and other media outlets, the nature of some of the responses I’ve seen to the headlines, and also to question some of the decisions the government and Ofqual the regulator have made. Suffice to say, the quality of comment that’s out there has been variable. Some thoughtful, lucid and careful analysis has appeared; other analysis has been crude, simplistic and misleading. The need for the former type of analysis is vital in a situation where a large number of young people find themselves confronting a really upsetting and difficult situation and (understandably) want answers.


The initial decision

Some words first on the government’s initial decision, back in March, to cancel the summer exams. From this everything else has flowed.

Certainly there were those (including me) who felt that this was a decision that needn’t have been made. In the recent words of Vicky Bingham, head of South Hampstead High school, ‘we could have managed exams. With a bit of imagination and planning we could have done it’. This reflects the thoughts of numerous teachers and leaders in education back in March.

In the place of actual exams, the government asked schools to produce teacher-generated grades (or, to use the jargon, CAGs – centre assessment grades). These were then to be subjected to a process of review and moderation by exam boards (overseen by ofqual, the exam board regulator).


Ofqual and the government could have offered some really clear advice to schools about how it would conduct the process of reviewing and moderating grades that schools submitted. Perhaps they could have done so along the lines suggested here. They didn’t.

A further crucial intervention that could have been made at this stage would have been to try to prevent a situation where pupils would miss university offers by dint of others’ best guesswork. Could special arrangements of some sort have been made for pupils in this situation? If so, what? One possibility would have been to ask universities to defer places for pupils in this situation until they’d had a chance to sit actual exams, either in November or next June. Or to ask them to hold open as many places as possible, regardless of exam outcomes. If this did happen, no one has heard of it.

It’s pretty clear to me that not enough thought went into trying to look after the interests of pupils in this category, to try to find something like a ‘fair’ route forward for them.

CAGs, Ofqual’s algorithm and Grade Adjustments

School-generated grades were always going to be a mixed bag. Some schools achieve very similar results year-by-year. Other schools can expect quite different results, depending on the cohort of students they have. Some schools have smaller year groups (where bigger year-by-year shifts are quite likely); some don’t.

Equally, some teachers and institutions – for various reasons – will have been quite generous with their pupils’ CAGs; others won’t. On the whole, generosity seems to have been more common. Back in July, Ofqual revealed that schools had submitted grades that were 12 percentage points higher than last year’s grades.

Some form of control on what was happening would be necessary, then, if we were not to see significant grade inflation. Or, to frame the matter in a different way, if we were not to see some pupils benefit from having generous/optimistic teachers, where others had had no such privilege.

Ofqual’s plan in dealing with the grades gathered from schools was to use statistical analysis and a specially configured algorithm with the data they had received. Crucially,  schools’ exam performance in previous years would be factored into the analysis and used to generate a similar batch of results for the present year.

Ofqual’s use of its algorithm is described, with clarity and in detail, here in (of all places) the Daily Mail. What we have ended up with, as a result, is an overall picture that looks pretty similar to the picture we’ve seen before in recent years.

The risk of sudden grade inflation, then, has been avoided. But the changes needed to achieve a familiar-looking picture have been considerable, and they have created needless upset.

An article on the BBC website reports how CAGs as a whole have been affected by ofqual’s interventions. The graph below shows the overall picture and speaks for itself:


A lot of press reporting has focussed on the fact that high-performing (outlier) students in schools where results are mostly low or average have been badly affected by the (mainly downwards) adjustments that have been made. If you are at a school whose pupils rarely achieve top grades, and your teachers have (justifiably) predicted you e.g. straight A*s, you are less likely – once an adjustment is made by Ofqual’s algorithm – to receive your teacher’s predictions than a pupil at a school where results are very often high. There is a nice case in point of this precise situation here.

To compensate for this sort of situation, Ofqual could have created a clear, straightforward appeals process, as suggested by Sam Freedman in this excellent Twitter thread here. The government could perhaps even have made special arrangements for such pupils to sit their exams in June or July. It didn’t. Instead, it’s been left to universities to pick up the pieces, making ad hoc judgments about the students who find themselves in this situation. Some students, inevitably, have been left disappointed. And some universities/courses/colleges have been more generous than others in responding to the situation.

For the vast majority of students who have experienced it, being downgraded must feel a very bitter pill to swallow. Students have been able to find out the grades their schools submitted on their behalf. For those who have not received those grades, especially if this means missing out on a university place, I feel incredibly sorry. My big feeling is that all the problems we have seen could have been obviated earlier in the year if the government had simply been determined that, come what may, all pupils would sit their exams.

How pupils have been affected: by school, by background

A further feature of the press reporting of the A level debacle has focussed on differences in outcomes between pupils in different types of school, and of different socio-economic backgrounds. Clearly there are some slight differences in the likelihood of having your teachers’ grades changed, depending on these factors. But to talk of ‘bias’, as some commentators have done, in my opinion profoundly distorts the issue.

The table below illustrates the issue in relation to school type:


The first table summarises adjustments made by school type. A big part of the commentary claiming there has been ‘bias’ toward independent schools in Ofqual’s policy has hinged on the statistic highlighted in yellow: 4.7% more A/A* grades were awarded to independent school pupils this year than last. There are several things to say here, and perhaps I’m particularly inclined to say them as someone who works in the independent sector.

First, that the independent school sector is diverse. Inevitably some schools will have done very badly out of what’s happened, and their statistics won’t reflect the overall trend. Others will have done well. A school that sees large variations in year-by-year performance, with a particularly good year group this year (with GCSE results to match), for example, may not have done well out of Ofqual’s review process. Put simply, many pupils at independent schools won’t have been advantaged by what has happened this year at all.

Second, although 4.7% seems a clearly higher figure than the other figures in the table, when seen as a proportion of A*/A grades awarded, it’s in fact not much out of keeping with the other figures. It represents an 11% increase in A*/A grades. For secondary comprehensive pupils there was a 9% increase in these grades, for selective secondary schools it was 3%, for sixth form/FE it was 1.4%, for academies it was 7% and for ‘other’ institutions it was 13%. So independent school pupils have done slightly better on the whole, but the 4.7 figure isn’t the outlier it might seem in the table when the statistics are seen in proportion.

Third, as some in the commentariat have pointed out, independent schools are more likely to have small class sizes than other types of school. For small class sizes, Ofqual has said that there is a problem applying its algorithm: the data pool is too small. As a consequence those with small class sizes have been more likely to receive their teacher-allocated grades. A further word here on the existence of these small classes, which some commentators have described as sites of privilege, of advantage. Well, another way of seeing them is just as places where subjects which are not currently as faddish as the most popular A level choices are being taught.

Fourth, it may just be that teachers in some schools – e.g. selective secondary schools and Sixth Form/FE colleges – submitted CAGs that were less optimistic for their pupils. If so, Ofqual should have adjusted for this more than they have done.

Below is a summary of outcomes for pupils of different socio-economic backgrounds:


The bullet points above the table are worth reading. On the face of it, it perhaps looks as though students of ‘Low SES’ have been more harshly treated: 10.42% of their CAGs have been downgraded, as opposed to 9.49% of medium SES and 8.34% from high SES backgrounds.

However, a) teachers of low SES pupils, as the table says, are more likely to over-predict (this can be borne out from historical data); b) they have actually achieved more highly this year (74.60% achieving C or above) than in either 2018 or 2019.

It has been a similarly good year for those in the Medium SES category, 78.20% of whose CAGs have been awarded C+, a better statistic than for either 2018 or 2019.

Only those in the High SES category have done worse than was managed in 2018, though they have done better than was managed in 2019.

So, when looked at carefully, ‘bias’ here, or in relation to school type, is difficult to detect. Of course, it ought to go without saying that ‘bias’ toward one or another type of school is something it would be bizarre to find a regulator doing.

The individual and the system

From my point of view, as I’ve said above, the real argument about these A level ‘results’ ought to have been happening in March. It’s all very well Keir Starmer today condemning the ‘disaster’ of this year’s results (and he isn’t wrong), but where was he earlier in the year, when he should have been pointing out the entirely predictable problems we’ve seen?

For a certain type of newspaper columnist, and for a certain type of twitter commentator, everything we’ve seen over the past two days points to ‘systemic bias’, to social inequality, and to entrenched injustice. ‘The whole [exam] system’, as one senior academic puts it, ‘is not to recognise individual merit or attainment, but to maintain its own credibility in the eyes of big business and pundits, and to sort the population according to predetermined criteria and maintain the status quo’. Some would say that’s a quite extraordinarily cynical way of seeing things.

But a less extreme version of this strand of opinion has been widely endorsed by numerous public figures. This claims simply that this year’s results have been ‘biased’, or that, in the words of the historian Peter Frankopan, the results have been ‘devastating for social equality/mobility’. Or that, in the words of Andy Burnham, ‘the government created a system which is inherently biased’ against FE and Sixth form colleges.

In my view, when looked at carefully, the tables considered in the section above highlight the obvious problems with perspectives like these, where the only ‘bias’ I can detect is in the attempt to seek broadly to replicate the results of previous years.

What is clear to me is that an opportunity has been seized to make some political capital out of the situation, by suggesting that the government has been biased against those of lower socio-economic backgrounds. On this occasion, though, the data simply doesn’t bear that out. And it’s almost as though some people are so intent on foisting their social theories and political assumptions on the data that it doesn’t really matter how badly those theories and assumptions actually tally with the facts.

A more productive way forward, surely, would be to emphasise that this has been a fiasco that has touched many people – pupils, teachers, parents, schools, universities – across the whole education sector, and across all sections of society; that very many pupils have been adversely impacted through no fault of their own; that proper plans and support should be put in place for those pupils who want to sit their exams; that now is not the time to play political football with young people’s lives and aspirations, but to try to respond to the situation without reaching for extreme judgments.

It’s good to see, for example, that Worcester College Oxford has promised to fulfil its offer of places to all who received one. I wonder about the practicalities/good sense of all universities/colleges doing this, but it’s certainly a very decent gesture.

Meanwhile, if there is to be a wide-ranging and trenchant critique of the socio-economic forces at play around A level assessments, it would be nice to hear it done thoroughly, accurately, and at a really opportune moment: like, for example, in March.

Favourite Reads of 2019 (2)

(Continued from previous)

5 Josephine Kamm, How Different from Us: a Biography of Miss Buss and Miss Beale


A fascinating read about the lives of two Victorian educators, Frances Mary Buss and Dorothea Beale. I discuss some of the highlights of the book in another post here.

4 Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity


Another book about which I’ve written already (here): Nussbaum, as the title of the book intimates, wants to redirect the focus of education in the humanities back onto the cultivation of humanity itself (and she does so with reference to some of the key arguments in ancient philosophy). The book was written in the 90s but its arguments felt relevant – perhaps even urgent – at a time when the intellectual tenor and human sensitivity of our public discourse isn’t exactly the best it could be.

3 Isobel Hurst, Victorian Women Writers and the Classics: the Feminine of Homer


This is a bit of a cheat – as, so far, I’ve only read the first 2 chapters. However, it’s already given me some clear glimpses of a whole area of history and research re: the classical world (19th century women’s reception) that I’ve not thought much about before. It’s also beautifully written.

2 Martial, Epigrams 


I hadn’t previously appreciated just how racy, funny and exuberant Martial’s epigrams are. My (inaccurate) memory of studying a selection of them many years ago was that they offered little more than a pretty unremarkable window into everyday Roman social reality. That selection must have omitted a lot of good stuff – and what sort of ‘social reality’ is it that we get in Martial, anyway? I’m looking forward to reading some of the Epigrams with students over the course of the upcoming term.

1 Giorgio Bassani, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis


Another beautifully written book (which I blogged about earlier this year here). I’d first tried to read this novel a couple of years ago, but couldn’t get into it then. This year, however, it stood out as the novel that (for various reasons) it made sense to read to my mother at her bedside during her final illness. She enjoyed it immensely – as did I, and its story (and the memory of reading it) will always hold a profound meaning for me.

Favourite reads of 2019 (1)

As it’s the end of the year, a number of people have started to list their favourite reads of the past 12 months. I thought I’d do the same – mainly because I’ve read some great books this year – though with the caveat that none of these books was actually published in 2019… I will have to do better at staying up to date by this time next year.
10. Christopher Stray, Living Word: WHD Rouse and the Crisis of the Classics in Edwardian England
A fascinating portrayal of the life and career of an Edwardian classicist and headmaster (of the Perse school, Cambridge), it’s a quick read. For me, there was also the interesting connection that Rouse, who pioneered the Direct Method of teaching Latin, worked earlier in his career at Bedford school (where I worked myself until this past term).
9. Russell Jacoby, The Last intellectuals: American culture in the age of academe
For anyone interested in academic life and campus culture changes (and disputes… I want to avoid the word ‘wars’…) in recent decades, this should prove a thought-provoking read. Jacoby’s is a sane, interesting voice in a debate where all too often the only arguments in town are either from the reactionary corner or the extreme left.
8. Keith Thomas, In Pursuit of Civility: Manners & civilisation in early modern England
I’ve tried one of Keith Thomas’ books – Religion and the Decline of Magic – before, but couldn’t get into it. This was a different story altogether. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the moral world of everyday social interactions and ideas of civility (and politeness) in 18th century England. Thomas was made a member of the Order of the Companions of Honour in this year’s new year’s honours list.
7. Horace, Satires 1 (w commentary by Emily Gowers)
I first read Horace as a teenager and it’s been great spending some time with him again in recent months. In the Satires, I like his social commentary and his complex literary persona, but also his humanity. Emily Gowers’ commentary is brilliant and added hugely to my understanding of the text.
6. Noel Annan, The Dons: Mentors, Eccentrics, Geniuses
Another book about the history of university education – and one perhaps worth reading for its clipped, rhythmical prose alone. There are plenty of entertaining anecdotes revealing the eccentric behaviour of dons over the past two centuries. My favourite anecdotes concerned the Victorian scientist William Buckland and his son (who, as a child, collected exotic animals in his college rooms). On one occasion, the dean of the college is reported to have admonished him: ‘Mr Buckland, I hear you keep a bear in college; well, either you or the bear must go’.

Miss Beale and Miss Buss

Over the past few days, I’ve been reading Josephine Kamm’s 1959 biography of the renowned Victorian educators Miss (Frances Mary) Buss and Miss (Dorothea) Beale, ‘How Different From Us’. The subject matter of the book has some relevance to me personally: I will soon be moving to work at one of the schools founded by Miss Buss, and I want to get to know the life of the founder (and the school’s first headmistress) before I arrive. But I’ve also enjoyed reading a number of biographies of other Victorian educators in the past (last Christmas I read about the life of the Victorian scholar Mark Pattison and wrote about the experience of doing so here, and I’ve read a fair bit too about the life of John Henry Newman), so Kamm’s biography isn’t wholly unfamiliar territory for me.

I wanted to jot down a few thoughts here about what I’ve taken from the biography. I’ve learnt quite a bit about the history of Victorian education from the book, certainly, but I’ve been most interested, I think, by some of the things I’ve learnt about the characters and experiences of Miss Buss and Miss Beale as individuals – and it’s these that I’m going to focus on in this post.

Frances Mary Buss blazed a trail in women’s education in the mid-19th century. Her first school began with just a handful of pupils in 1850 and was staffed by, among others, members of her own family. Buss had been born into a middle class family and perceived a need to provide girls of her own sort of background with an education to match in quality that which their brothers could expect to receive. This meant study of the full range of academic subjects, from Maths and Science to Latin and Greek. It also meant confronting head-on a range of unpropitious entrenched stereotypes about girls and women, their aptitudes and interests. Buss, like Beale (who also founded her own school), was adamant that girls could – and should strive to – reach the same standards as boys in their studies.

Being an educational trailblazer wasn’t – and, no doubt, still isn’t – easy. In spite of her successes as a pioneer of women’s education (and there were many – her schools thrived and changed the landscape of Victorian education), as an individual Buss faced countless challenges and difficulties. Part of this can be put down to the fact that she was a fantastically busy and active individual; part of it was the nature of the job she was doing – and it was an increasingly demanding job; and part of it no doubt comes down to the particular psychological pressures she faced, both in relation to her own life, and from outsiders.


What comes across clearly from Kamm’s biography is that both Buss and Beale were formidably strong, determined and inspiring figures, with a great deal of conviction about their educational missions. But they are also fully human figures – vulnerable to self-doubt and worry, certainly, and subject to the full range of human feelings – while being also modest and kind, public figures who managed to combine feeling for others and an understanding of what their schools, and pupils, needed, with straightforward and down-to-earth common-sense.

A good example of the latter qualities in action comes in a description of Beale’s scornful attitude toward the sort of teacher who ‘feeds the moral nature of a child from her own life’, making the child into a ‘parasite, unable to live apart from her’. Buss herself aimed to have an energising impact on her pupils, but she was entirely opposed to ‘hero-worship’ (something which she thought might happen naturally enough in children, but which a good teacher should know how to guard against). Buss offered the following common sense advice to a young teacher who was struggling to deal with being idolised by a pupil: ‘the quickest way to stop that sort of behaviour’, she counselled, ‘is to let the girls get to know you. Once they see you as you really are, they will stop idolising you’. This remains, I suspect, wise advice which can apply equally to the education of boys.

One of the most difficult periods in Frances Mary Buss’s career came in the early 1870s, when – as headmistress – she found herself wrestling to maintain responsibility and control over her school. The challenge to her freedom to act as she wished as headmistress came from certain school governors, who wanted to have some say in the school’s day-to-day running. The interest of this episode, for me, lies in the way Buss received and benefitted from the advice of two important friends concerning it – and the way their advice differed.

One friend, Annie Ridley, warned her that any ‘impetuous’ behaviour toward these governors could damage her position – not just as headmistress, but as an advocate for girls’ education across the country more generally. She advised Frances Mary ‘never to give way to anger or indignation except before one of her more understanding friends’. She assured her that all of her own instincts ‘were to dash headlong [with Buss] into open warfare against the Chairman [of governors], yet she nevertheless maintained that the good of the school should come first and that ‘it is greater in you…to rise above all that’.

Another friend, Emily Davies (who, with Buss’s support, founded Girton College, Cambridge), was altogether less conciliatory than this. ‘In a case like this [i.e. Buss’s antipathy towards the chair of governors]’, she wrote, ‘I feel that plain speaking, painful as it must be, and trying to do justice to the other side is the best help one can give’. Davies knew that these words would ruffle feathers: ‘I know what I have said must hurt you. You would not be human if it did not’. The result of this advice, in Kamm’s analysis, was nonetheless positive: Buss now demonstrated ‘caution, if not reserve’ with the governors.

Girton College, Cambridge, which was founded with the support of Miss Beale and Miss Buss by Emily Davies

There are several interesting things about these two pieces of advice, I think. First, they highlight clearly the importance of a supportive and gentle tone when giving advice: Emily Davies’ heart may well be in the right place, and her advice may well end up being acted upon, but she manages also to create distress in giving it, in a way that the more sympathetic and careful Annie Ridley does not. Second, both pieces of advice highlight the importance of, well, advice. Buss, evidently, did not try to react to the challenging features of her work in a psychological vacuum: she relied too on conversations with her friends and confidantes. Finally, I think, there is something moving as well as interesting about the tenderness and kindness of Annie Ridley’s approach: she expresses solidarity with Frances Mary’s emotional outlook, while also managing to zone out and look at the situation within a broader context when delivering her advice. She achieves a combination of tactfulness and perspective, then – an example, perhaps, of the best kind of friendly advice in microcosm.

Josephine Kamm’s biography was published in the 1950s, and it doesn’t handle the gender dimension of its subjects’ careers with the kind of careful attention that a contemporary writer would hope to give it today. A modern biographer would have a good deal more to say than Kamm does, I think, about Buss’s feeling that ‘it tears me apart to have to be always asserting myself’ (in the context of her wrangling with the governors). Self-assertion, Buss confides to Annie Ridley, is something she feels she must do if she is to enjoy ‘a certain amount of freedom of action’.

Yet her discomfort with self-assertion, a contemporary observer might feel, must have had a lot to do with the presumably awkward business of adopting an opinionated, outspoken or demanding stance in interaction with powerful Victorian men (such as the governors of Frances Mary’s school were). The experience of doing just this, she herself reports, brought her in mind of the ‘Mystery of Pain’ and made her sob herself to sleep like a child.

This, we might say, was just one of the psychological difficulties of being a woman with a public role in a man’s world, a world where assertiveness and femininity did not – and were not exactly expected to – belong together. Yet, in looking over the career of Frances Mary Buss for the first time, I find myself feeling that she somehow managed to square this particular circle – no doubt with the help and sage advice of friends like Annie Ridley along the way, but also because of the sheer extent of her personal commitment to public educational initiatives.

She was on the Council of half a dozen training organisations, including the Cheltenham Ladies’ College (Miss Beale’s school), the College of Preceptors, the Women’s branch of Swanley Horticultural College and the Cambridge Training College for Teachers (which she helped to found). She was also a governor of UCL and of the London School of Medicine, and a number of other girls’ schools, as well as being an associate of a number of organisations concerned with girls’ education more generally. With this incredible range of public commitments, it seems unreasonable to doubt her capacity to believe in herself as an assertive public figure. It is also easy to see why so many people were so in awe of her.*


*I have taken references from Josephine Kamm’s biography, pages 76, 134-5, 142-3, 176, 185.

Democracy and Knowledge

This week I ran a General Knowledge quiz over a succession of lunchtimes at school. The quiz was open to all pupils from across the age range (13-18) and there were around 60 entrants this year (not too bad, in retrospect, although fewer than last). There were 80 questions for pupils to complete, and the quiz was multiple choice (with 4 options). I wrote many of the questions with the intention that, even if the boys didn’t know the right answer, they might be able to form an educated guess and – even if not – pick up information of interest simply from the question itself.

So, for example, in asking a question about the ancient Etruscans, I posed it as follows: ‘The ancient Etruscans leave no written texts: our knowledge of their culture is confined mainly to archaeological finds, including a series of impressive tombs. In which modern country might you find the archaeological remains of the ancient Etruscan civilisation?’

And, when asking a question about the opera Carmen, I framed it like this: ‘Who wrote the opera ‘Carmen’, which tells the story of the seduction of a naive Spanish soldier, Don Jose, by Carmen, a gypsy girl?’

A scene from Bizet’s Carmen

Posing the questions in this way was done (I admit) with the intention not simply of providing a tidbit of knowledge about the subject matter they refer to, but with a view to inspiring further interest or investigation of topics that pupils might not have heard of, or that might not have interested them, before.

What particularly struck me as I was setting the quiz this year, though, was the importance of general knowledge across a whole range of areas of life – from the humdrum and everyday to the way we are able to exercise important individual liberties. I have been thinking quite a bit, in other words, not just about the quiz itself, but about the place of general knowledge in education – and democracies – more generally.

A few years ago, around the time of the election of Donald Trump, I encountered a provocative and very interesting article in the New Yorker by Caleb Crain, entitled ‘The Case against Democracy’ (link here). The opening lines of the article gave immediate pause for thought: ‘Roughly a third of American voters think that the Marxist slogan “From each according to his ability to each according to his need” appears in the Constitution. About as many are incapable of naming even one of the three branches of the United States government. Fewer than a quarter know who their senators are, and only half are aware that their state has two of them’.


This sort of general knowledge deficit is of course not unique to citizens of America’s democracy: a degree of unawareness of political and constitutional realities exists everywhere. The remainder of Crain’s article looks at different ways in which political theorists have tried to grapple with the problem of ‘political ignorance’ among voters in democracies. From considering arguments for weighing the votes of the knowledgeable more heavily, to arguments in favour of outright vote restriction; from trying to ascertain whether there might be a ‘rational’ explanation for political ignorance, to trying to assess the psychological dispositions of those who are both more and less ignorant: a lot has been done to try to understand ‘political ignorance’, and to explore how it might be addressed.

One point that is not considered in Crain’s article is that the existence of something like a General Knowledge requirement for participation/involvement in political/civic life already exists in countries like the UK and the US, in the form of the tests which those applying for citizenship or leave to remain in those countries must complete. The existence of such tests is not widely queried nor do the tests themselves occasion much (if any, from what I have seen) controversy. Why shouldn’t a similar test, checking knowledge of basic political and constitutional realities, be a requirement for all those wishing to exercise the right to vote? And isn’t this the sort of thing schools might provide for all pupils before they leave?

An obvious worry here would of course be with the potential for corruption: making any such test too easy or difficult, or politically biased in some or other direction, for instance. But is it not also worrying that widespread misinformation, ‘fake news’ and disingenuous political campaigning also generate the potential for equally – if not more – serious corruption of the political process? That, arguably, is the situation we must confront.

Arguments in favour of the introduction of tests of political knowledge/ignorance do not seem to have an ancient pedigree. That this is so may seem surprising. For one thing, after all, the arrival of democratic government in the world’s first democracy in ancient Athens seems to have been accompanied by a rising tide of education. Where, previously, only the nobly born could expect to receive an education, increasingly young men (though not women) from across the body of free citizens might now receive one (sometimes very much to the chagrin of Athens’ aristocrats).

And yet: we do not – to my knowledge – possess evidence of any ancient laws mandating education for citizens of democratic Athens from this period. It seems rather that the free-born just recognised something good in literate education, for instance, that seemed to be of value: it certainly wasn’t a requirement, though, that they had to have an education to participate in politics.

Deep in the very history of democracy, then, we find knowledge – at least, that is, knowledge of a sort that is transmitted through an education – being treated not as a fundamental requirement of democratic involvement, but as an optional freedom which citizens might choose, but not be required, to have.

The argument that democratic government in ancient Athens was nonetheless effective at dispersing knowledge among its citizens in ways that produced many desirable outcomes for the city can still, however, be made.* It’s just that – so the argument goes – knowledge emerges among citizens of the democracy more as a product of the Athenian political system and its social networks and institutions – but not in any altogether obvious way out of its educational institutions too.

What significance might there be in the fact that, at the very origin of democratic institutions, rights and citizenship, no special measure was introduced to the effect that a particular kind of education would be the norm?

Figures of significance in the later development of democracy certainly recognised the importance of having an educated citizen body. For John Adams, the American statesman and founding father, writing in his Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law in 1765, ‘Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge’.

John Adams, founding father and the 2nd US president

Adams is worth quoting at length: ‘The preservation of the means of knowledge, among the lowest ranks, is of more importance to the public than all the property of all the rich men in the country…Let us tenderly and kindly cherish, therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak, and write. Let every order and degree among the people rouse their attention and animate their resolution. Let them all become attentive to the grounds and principles of government’.

Adams was not alone among the US founding fathers in adopting this sort of view. Indeed, so influential did such thoughts become that De Tocqueville, on visiting the US in the 19th century, made the following observation at the outset of his great work on American politics: ‘In the United States, the sum of men’s education is directed toward politics’.

This, if it represents an accurate assessment, may not, of course, be taken to reflect an altogether healthy state of affairs.

Perhaps, and especially given the parlous state of contemporary US politics, there is good reason to remain suspicious of any attempt to introduce a new test of political knowledge to voters, or into school curricula. Do we want education to have an outright and precisely specified requirement of political knowledge?

If so, do we risk moving in the direction of producing the sort of education Tocqueville identified as characteristic of the 19th century US?

If not, perhaps we will remain in some sense close to the somewhat more laissez-faire democrats of ancient Athens, for whom democratic citizenship and formal education did not need to go together, hand in hand.

*See e.g. Josiah Ober (2008), Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens.

Must Criticism be Constructive?

There has come into being a widely held view, writes the philosopher Raymond Geuss, that ‘merely negative’ criticism is somehow defective or inappropriate. It’s not so much that I constantly come across enjoinders about the need to be constructive in my life as an educator. It’s more that I sense it’s just generally pretty well assumed – both by myself and my colleagues – that if we’re going to be critical of a pupil’s behaviour or work, then constructive criticism (insofar as this is possible, and in whatever way we care to offer it) is the best way to go.

What, after all, is the alternative? For any educator to refer to a ‘non-constructive’, ‘deconstructive’, or ‘destructive’ criticism they had just made of a pupil or their work would likely provoke misgivings. Aside from being rather unlovely phrases (is ‘non-constructive’ perhaps the least worst?), each of them suggests the kind of negativity whose supposed defectiveness Geuss highlights. For teachers, being negative might involve offering the sort of comment that is not calculated to build up, inspire or encourage; that does not aim to offer any kind of praise at all; and that is concerned only to illustrate shortcomings or problems.



I want to suggest three possible contexts in which, contrary to popular wisdom, criticism of a negative sort can make good sense. The first two will, I think, seem reasonably uncontroversial; the third, perhaps, less so. In each context it would be a mistake to assume (despite appearances) that the negative framing of a criticism – and its consequent lack of ‘constructive’ emphasis – is the end of the story. Behind any given ‘non-constructive’ criticism (at least, that is, along the lines considered here) lies a hidden positive intent.

First, simple rule enforcement. The tie is not on; the shirt is untucked; the mobile phone is out; the teacher is being talked over; the chair is being rocked on. And so forth. Simple negative direct commands in such cases can be just that: negative. There’s nothing encouraging, uplifting or inspirational about telling a child to stop pushing into the lunch queue. Aside, that is, from a hidden positive intent: everyone will likely stand to benefit in some way from the relevant rule being followed; the child needs to learn about how to behave respectfully within a community. This point stands also in respect of more serious disciplinary matters.

Second, a sustained lack of effort. I think there must come a point when an alternative to positive encouragement and gentle supportiveness (most teachers’ default setting) is required in such a scenario. This need not take the form of the old-fashioned rollicking, but it could certainly involve pointing out repeated sloppy mistakes, false promises, opportunities missed, or a generally poor attitude – and doing so pretty pointedly. The general intention behind the criticism here will of course be to make clear that the individual in question could and should be doing a lot better. It needn’t follow, though, that an explicit statement to this effect is required. Leaving the point implicit might in fact have more of an effect.

Third, and finally, in the context of a given piece of written work that just doesn’t measure up (even though some effort may have been made and at least some marks have been awarded). This might seem controversial territory. Shouldn’t the point here be to build on what’s gone well and to suggest ways to address the less good bits? I wouldn’t at all wish to rule out the validity of approaching things in this way a good deal of the time – not least because I do just this myself! At the same time, however, I think something can also be said for adopting a more steadfastly negative line.

Sloppy errors of fact, culled from a notoriously unreliable source, that are presented without much care or thought in the context of an essay might deserve a negative response. So too might an assignment which has clearly been completed in a rushed or haphazard manner. So also work which simply sets down on paper a collection of irrelevant comments (or, for that matter, a slapdash summary of what a pupil happens to know already about a particular topic) which don’t engage with an essay question that’s been posed.

In each of these cases, a resolutely negative response often seems to me justified. I hope this doesn’t just show that I’m making good headway on the path toward an increasingly irascible old age. As already mentioned, the motivation underlying a negative criticism, even in this third category, can remain a positive one. Albeit implicitly, such criticism can make the point that better work could and should have been produced; that high standards need to be met and are attainable. Better this, surely, than airy comments that don’t take the trouble to pinpoint the clear shortcomings in a poor piece of work. Or a saccharine avoidance of any kind of reprimand. As long as praise is (or is known to be) forthcoming when exacting standards are met, it makes sense to employ the judicious use of negative feedback when they aren’t.

Completing any challenging assignment (particularly in arts and humanities subjects) ought to be, at least in part, about helping pupils to find their own voice, to wrestle with tricky and even intractable questions, and to read and write with clarity and insight. Negative criticism is a way of trying to jump-start this process. If a pupil is producing work that doesn’t offer anything by way of critical questioning, thinking outside the box, or self-aware thoughtfulness, the jolt of some negative criticism can offer a useful means of redress.

Oakeshott on Classical Education

In his 1975 essay, ‘The Place of Learning’, the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott describes the character and influence of the study of Classical antiquity in the Renaissance (and thereafter) in the following terms: learning, he says, came to be ‘identified with coming to understand the intimations of a human life in a historic culture…[and] with the invitation to recognise oneself in terms of this culture. This was an education which promised and afforded liberation from the here and now of current engagements, from the muddle, the crudity, the sentimentality, the intellectual poverty and the emotional morass of ordinary life’. Oakeshott then adds: ‘And so it continues to this day…the torch is still alight and there are still some hands to grasp it’.

To state the obvious, there is a rather negative tone to this summary (not least in its rather glum final image of a dying torch being passed among a few dwindling hands: I hope this image, in particular, is quite wrong). Oakeshott’s words seem to betoken, above all, a profound disappointment with the present: indeed, the need for ‘liberation’ from the present seems, for him, to be the very thing that most underscores the benefits of a Classical education. And Oakeshott seems to assume that, when encountering Classical antiquity, pupils will inevitably find ‘a culture’ which produced the very opposite of muddled thought, crudeness, sentimentality, intellectual poverty and so on.

This is too optimistic. While it is true that the best of ancient writing can indeed offer much that is lucid and intellectually fascinating, this is by no means always the case: moreover, ancient writing can certainly be both crude and sentimental! There is also the issue of Oakeshott’s collapse of the markedly different (and internally diverse and ever-evolving) civilisations of Greece and Rome into the simple phrase, ‘a historic culture’. Certainly, this is a phrase that could – should – have been formulated more judiciously.

And yet. There is nevertheless, I think, an important truth which Oakeshott manages to give voice to in the words quoted above, even if he does so in a muffled way. The truth in question concerns the vital role of Classical study in opening up space for perspective – perspective which may allow ‘liberation from the here and now of current engagements’, as he puts it. This sort of perspective, argues Oakeshott, is important not only for students, but for the ‘civilisations’ of which they are members. It is a crucial ingredient, as Oakeshott saw it, of liberal learning.

As he puts it in his 1965 essay, ‘Learning and Teaching’, ‘to initiate a pupil into the world of human achievement is to make available much that does not lie upon the surface of his present world….much that may not be in current use, much that has come to be neglected and even something that for the time being is forgotten. To know only the dominant is to become acquainted with only an attenuated version of this inheritance’.

Here Oakeshott is unquestionably on strong ground and he builds toward a provocative, if perhaps somewhat melodramatic, conclusion: ‘To see oneself reflected in the mirror of the present modish world is to see a sadly distorted image of a human being; for there is nothing to encourage us to believe that what has captured current fancy is the most valuable part of our inheritance, or that the better survives more readily than the worse’. In a number of respects, I think, this must be right.

The implications for teaching, he suggests, are clear: ‘the business of the teacher is to release pupils from servitude to the current dominant feelings, emotions, images, ideas, beliefs and even skills’. Doing so is not about ‘inventing alternatives’ but about ‘making available something which approximates more closely to a whole inheritance’.

The point being made here, then, is that a major aim – maybe the major aim – of teaching should be about allowing pupils space to gain a sense of perspective on their contemporary situation by allowing them to get to know the past (interestingly he is keen to exclude any kind of futurology from this process). In getting to know surprising or even mundane truths about what was, what could plausibly have been, and (by implication) what could still be, pupils are better able to appreciate contingencies and to think freely.

Nonetheless, Oakeshott is wary of offering unguarded optimism about the consequences of developing this sort of capacity. Learning of the sort he recommends does not, he insists, deliver a ‘clear or unambiguous message; it often speaks in riddles; it offers us advice and suggestion, recommendations, aids to reflection, rather than directives’.

Elsewhere he writes that ‘the engagement of liberal learning involves becoming aware of one’s intellectual and cultural inheritance not as a stock of information or knowledge to be absorbed and applied, but as living traditions of intellectual inquiry and understanding to which the learner is invited to contribute’. Liberal learning, he maintains, is about ‘learning to speak with intelligence the great languages of human understanding—science, philosophy, history, and art—in order to gain greater self-knowledge as well as to participate in the ongoing “conversation of mankind’.*

This perspective chimes directly with quite a lot of what I try to achieve and emphasise in my classroom. In a number of ways, I think, it neatly summarises what studying Classics – and, from what I can see, the humanities more generally – is like.**

*For a fuller outline of Oakeshott’s views on liberal education, there is a useful discussion here.

**Having said this, I find much of Oakeshott’s writing on the subject of education (collected together in a book, The voice of Liberal Learning, edited by Timothy Fuller) quite opaque. His analysis is often expressed in pretty general terms: for example, in relation to the above, the reader is left to wonder to what extent he thinks study in different fields like poetry, history, art, philosophy and so on succeeds in delivering his desired outcomes. The whole discussion proceeds at quite an abstract remove. And, as mentioned above, his tone can be pretty pessimistic, while his prose is sometimes quite dense. In spite of all this, he can be refreshing to read, not least because he is prepared to make unfashionable arguments.

Discovering some Cognitive Psychology

One feature of the history of Classics that I sometimes allude to in my classes is the crucial contribution which the stories of Classical myth made to the development of modern psychology through their influence on Freudian psychoanalysis. On hearing about this, pupils’ ears tend to prick up. Perhaps before anything else, it may be the very mention of the word ‘psychology’ that piques their interest. I sense that many of them have a clear notion that Psychology is the discipline, before any other, that can explain how people’s minds work. If I am correct about this, I would probably appear a bit unusual, if not something of a sceptic, to them, since I take it as an uncontroversial given that, alongside psychology, literature, philosophy, anthropology and the history of ideas (among other disciplines) all have equally important things to impart about the workings of people’s minds. I think this is the case because, rather than in spite of, the fact that my mother was for many years a practising child psychologist. Any temptation to assume a great deal about the overarching or ‘meta-‘ significance of her academic discipline and its methodologies was one to which she did not yield. My general picture of her approach to psychological research is one in which data and experiment can present interesting and important information, but that wider generalities need to be arrived at only tentatively – and provisionally.

A similar approach to psychological research to that espoused by my mother was evident yesterday, over the course of a day of training at the Quarry theatre in Bedford. Some recent findings in cognitive psychology were presented and its relevance for school education discussed. The presenters go by the moniker ‘The Learning Scientists’ and they had travelled from the US to speak to about 200 of us (which they did, very engagingly). The Learning Scientists introduced cognitive psychology as a relatively new field of research with roots in cognitive science (by no means an ancient discipline itself!). My familiarity with the latter field is pretty much limited to my having read a couple of Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker books (one of which – The Blank Slate – I particularly enjoyed), and to the fact that the philosopher Bernard Williams expressed severe misgivings about some of the bolder claims made by cognitive scientists like Pinker before he died. It was safe to say, in any event, that Cognitive Psychology was pretty unfamiliar territory for me.

The emphasis of the day’s session was on enabling pupils to retain information better, and we were introduced to a series of techniques which can be used over the course of a period of study (a school year seemed to be the model we were working with) to achieve this aim. The big three techniques were Spacing, Interleaving and Retrieval Practice, to use the appropriate terminology. By contrast with these, ‘Mass Learning’ was introduced as a technique which different studies have shown leads to comparatively poorer pupil memory retention.


Massed Teaching was the first concept to attract my attention: this is where pupils are presented with information, all in one go, or over a strictly delimited time period and then tested on it. They will only encounter it again in the context of the exam room at the end of the year. I asked if this style of learning, which we were assured has serious drawbacks, in fact works best for some learners: from the limited data available, I was assured, it doesn’t! It was impossible not to reflect as I found this out that my own preparation for exams in the past has very likely been sub-optimal in just this way – particularly in the context of my legal training, where short-term ‘memory dumping’ was the norm (at least for me).

Happily the technique of Spacing – which involves returning to topics already covered on an occasional basis, and reaffirming what has been learnt – is one I already employ in my classroom. I cannot claim any great insight here: it’s more a matter of necessity. I find it difficult to imagine a version of effective language teaching which does not involve returning periodically to grammatical concepts and vocabulary that have already been introduced. Still, it was interesting to learn that this is a technique that seems to hold clear benefits in other settings.

Interleaving has a similar underlying idea. It involves incorporating material that has already been covered alongside material that is currently being covered as part of the learning process. So, in Maths, it might mean putting a simultaneous equation next to a differential equation as part of the same piece of classwork, even if the two are covered formally as separate topics. This again is something that language learning more or less necessarily involves as a matter of course: however, I came away with some thoughts about how I might try to incorporate this technique into my teaching of historical subject matter.

Retrieval Practice is buttressed by the finding that the more pupils are asked to attempt the task of ‘retrieving’ information they have encountered over the course of a given time period, the more likely they are to remember it. This has implications for testing. Lots of small periods of study and practice testing leads to better memorisation than do long periods of study and only very few tests. Long periods of reading, or taking notes on exactly what is written in a textbook, is also not an effective approach. ‘Retrieving’ effectively entails picking out core ideas, which involves having done this multiple times previously and (ideally) in a range of ways.

A key overall aim of the session was to enable teachers to help pupils remember more of what they’re taught, so that they are more likely to perform well in their end of year exams. This is surely a laudable aim, given how many children struggle to do just this. At the same time, however, I think there is room to question the extent to which certain kinds of memorisation (particularly rote-learning) are being required by our current exam systems.

In some subjects, there may be a perfectly good argument that a lot *more* rote learning might be desirable (the geography pupil who can score top grades without knowing their capital cities comes to mind here). In others (and here I think primarily of the sciences, given that cutting edge science is increasingly focussed on niche areas), less memorisation might be an attractive way forward.

More might be done, perhaps, to test general knowledge across broad areas of a whole academic field (and this necessarily involves at least some rote learning), rather than focus exclusively on a few key topics, at school level.  It might be that school pupils would be more enthusiastic about their studies if more *general* knowledge of this sort, and less memorisation and testing of applied understanding of specific topics, were required for their exams. I wonder how far this sort of proposal might find wider support in the UK.

Certainly, the extent to which children (and university students) should be – and are – expected to remember detailed compendia of information for their exams is an area of debate which is not going to disappear from sight. Within this debate, the kind of remembering pupils are doing (and the Learning Scientists made clear that we see very different *types* of remembering happening in our schools) surely matters a great deal. It matters, for example, whether students are remembering in a certain way (like the brain-dump, in which they are primarily learning in order to leap hurdles, and then forgetting), or whether they are learning to retain information more permanently with a view – eventually – to becoming members of an informed adult population. I anticipate that the insights of Cognitive psychology may help pave the way toward a more satisfactory future status quo in this regard.








Educating the whole person in Victorian Oxford

It has been a quiet Christmas with family this year. I did find a chance, though, to do some (admittedly not-so-light) reading – and recently I came to the end of a very interesting book dealing with the topic of academic life in nineteenth century Oxford. I wanted to jot down a few findings and arguments I came across while reading it, as it certainly left an impression.

The book is a kind of biography – its subject the Oxford scholar Mark Pattison, a major figure in the academic and administrative life of his university – which offers also a history of ideas and debates about the aims of education in the Victorian university. It’s written by HS Jones, a History professor at Manchester, and I was fortunate to find a cheap copy used on Amazon, as it’s an expensive – if excellent – book only available as a hardback (as here). From reading the book, I think Pattison is a figure whose ideas deserve attention in the context of debates that continue to surround the subject of education today.

The Victorian period was a time of much pioneering activity and growth in British education, and this was true too of Oxford. It was, for instance, a time when many Oxford dons found a way to bring the benefits of university education to workers, putting together extension courses and classes for those of limited education and limited means to attend university in the conventional way (link here). This is just one example of the commitment to extending the field of operation of the university that characterised the thinking of many leading Victorian educationalists. The world of Victorian education could be (and was – and sometimes continues to be) crudely – if not unjustifiably – caricatured as one of punctilious strictness, brutal corporal punishment and endless, mandatory Greek and Latin to be learned by rote. Certainly it was one in which significant economic, educational and indeed religious barriers blocked many from receiving a higher education altogether. However, it is demonstrable that this world was also characterised by the thoughtfulness, lucidity and intellectual courage of many of its leading denizens.

Mark Pattison was one such case. I warm to Pattison partly because, for him, academic teaching was less a matter of pedagogical technique and more a matter of personal encounter, whereby the student comes to see the character and intellectual interests of a teacher and is formed by this experience. This might sound a bit like the beginning of an argument in favour of amateurism or some kind of cult of personality. But Pattison – in the words of his contemporary John Henry Newman, whom he admired but later dissociated himself from – saw it rather as an important guarantor that the process of educating a mind could not resemble ‘a foundry, a mint or a treadmill’: it must be personal rather than simply mechanical.

I like Pattison’s sceptical view of ‘mechanical’ instruction, and his insistence on the necessary human element that must lie at the heart of true education. That instruction may run the risk of being mechanical, he suggested, is partly a consequence of examinations. Formal university examinations in Oxford had been introduced only recently, in 1800. Pattison feared that ‘the ascendancy of the examination was creating a new formalism in which outward attainments…would be valued at the expense of the real intellectual qualities the examinations were supposed to test’. The love of learning, he thought, ‘was degraded if it depended for its operation on the offer of external rewards’. Love of learning, of self-improvement, should be its own reward: ‘to enforce study by examination is much on a par with compelling morality by public discipline, or restraining private extravagance by sumptuary laws’. The principal defect of examinations, he argued, is that ‘the best contrived examination can only reach knowledge and acquirement; it cannot gauge character’. True enough.

Knowledge, he went as far as to say, should be sought ‘not for itself, but as a means for enlarging and building up the character’. This statement represents a clear and thought-provoking clash with a prevailing tendency in 21st century educational thinking, where knowledge of what is on a particular syllabus is presented virtually as a ‘good’ in itself, offering a means to secure exam-based qualifications.

In common with many Victorian educationalists, Pattison thought that an overriding aim of an education was to build character. Unlike a good number of his contemporaries, however, he didn’t think this could be straightforwardly achieved through the cultivation of ‘manly virtues’ in the context of athletic activities. For Pattison, it was intellectual life (properly conceived as the love of learning for its own sake) that did most to build character – and in advancing this view, he knew he would have to make his case. On the one hand, he saw that athletic pursuits do indeed help cultivate some honourable virtues: ‘keenness, vigour, boldness, skill, enterprise, readiness, hardiness, determination, solidity’. These he regarded as ‘the manly virtues of a trading and speculating people’. On the other hand, he suggested that these virtues were in danger of being ‘too exclusively honoured’, that they tended to thrust out of sight the softer virtues of ‘humility, patience, self-abnegation, prayer, devotion, charity’. (Pattison later disavowed his Christianity). Here too, I think, he has something important to say.

A final point about Pattison’s perspective on education that struck me is his view of research. Pattison is known as a key Victorian figure who threw his weight behind the (German) model of the research university, according to which a primary focus of academic life is on producing original academic studies and publications. It was therefore surprising to find out what Pattison thought the point of academic research actually was. Research, he thought, is what enables scholars to be ‘actively engaged in a process of self-culture’. This ensures the presence of a ‘philosophical temper’, which in turn is a prerequisite for meaningful teaching. In short, the point of research, he thinks, is self-development with a view to being the best sort of teacher.

Clearly this is a vision that differs profoundly from some of the standard ways in which the raison d’etre of academic research is now conceived: that is, as a means to add to, or to dispute matters relating to, the common stock of knowledge; as a means to obtain professional status; as a means to discuss or solve real-world problems. These common ways of thinking about what academic research is for belie an underlying scientism (and presentism). But this scientizing (and presentist) lens, one might insist, is not the only valid way of conceiving the point of research: in the humanities, for instance, it is arguably a cause of ongoing damage. Pattison – while stressing the importance of research – offers a different perspective on why it might be of value, both to the researcher themselves and to their pupils.

Quiz Answers from the last post:

  1. B – no donkey is mentioned in the New Testament accounts of the nativity.
  2. C – the arch was that of Titus, son of the emperor Vespasian, who became emperor briefly himself from 79-81.
  3. D – Hercules is the correct answer.

The last lesson of term

One activity I seem to find myself doing a lot (and taking some enjoyment in) as a teacher is setting quizzes. Quiz-setting offers an opportunity to revisit less well-remembered areas of my own subject knowledge; it’s also a chance to facilitate some out-of-the-box thinking. Earlier this term I set the questions for a school-wide general knowledge quiz. Then, ahead of last week, I prepared another quiz – a Classics Christmas quiz – for all my classes to have a go at in their final lessons of term.

The quiz was multiple choice. Using this approach is good, I think, for three main reasons. First, it helps to guard against disaffection: the pure guesser always has, in theory, a 1 in 4 chance. The pupils who know little will never be required to conjure answers out of thin air: they will also sometimes see that they knew more than they thought. Second, a range of possible answers encourages the use of a process of elimination. Rather than testing established knowledge directly, I am generally trying to get pupils to reason their way – via a red herring or two – to a correct answer using both their knowledge base and their powers of deduction. Third, the multiple choice format enables me to ask more searching questions, dealing with a broader range of subject matter.

This term’s quiz followed a, by now, pretty familiar routine. Boys formed teams of 3 or 4 members and had fun making up team names (‘Team See Me After Class’ was one that generated some amusement). They then considered the four categories of question they would have to answer. With Christmas in mind, this term’s quiz had a religious theme: the four categories were Ancient Christmas, First Century Judaism, Greek Religion and Roman Religion. Teams had to pick one of these as their joker round, which would count double. When they had done this, we would move straight into round one.

Having done a number of these quizzes over several terms now, I find it easy to see why early evening TV schedules are so full of quiz shows. In my classroom, the big 3 elements of quizzing that seem to make it enjoyable are: 1) the friendly competition; 2) the chance to work as a team; 3) the chance to impress peers with already existing knowledge, and/or to find out new and interesting things. Presumably it’s these sorts of things which combine to make shows like Pointless, Eggheads and others so popular.

I can’t finish this post without including a few questions from last week’s quiz in case anyone wishes to give them a go…answers will be given on a forthcoming post…

1. Which of the following does not feature in the accounts of Jesus’ birth and infancy in the New Testament?

a. wise men (magi)

b. a donkey

c. shepherds

d. a star

2. Which Roman emperor’s arch, which can still be seen near the Roman Forum, depicts Romans taking plunder from Jerusalem after the sacking of the city in 70 AD?

a. Augustus

b. Nero

c. Titus

d. Trajan

3. The Ara Maxima (‘Greatest Altar’) was set up in the Forum Boarium to honour which figure in Roman myth?

a. Remus

b. Tarquinius Superbus

c. Cato the Elder

d. Hercules

Rugby Time

2018 rugby

A major feature of my school week this term is rugby, out on the school playing fields, come rain or shine, on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons (for training) and Saturday afternoons (when we usually have our fixtures). For the past two years, I have been coaching the U15C team (pictured above, after a recent hard-won victory). It’s a role I’ve enjoyed, even as I’ve struggled at times with travel sickness on trips to away games. My own brief career as a rugby player ended at 16, up until which point I’d played as a flanker for my own school team. Twenty years later, I’ve discovered that coaching the game is not just fun, but a good learning opportunity too.

Sociologists of sport suggest that team sporting contests play out in microcosm the dynamics of war between the competing participants. Team sport can thus be conceived as a training in soldiery – the quip that ‘the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton’ being just one well-known illustration of the point.

The Victorian schoolmasters who oversaw the introduction of large-scale team sporting contests into the timetables of their public schools appreciated this. But, for many of them, there was a good deal more at stake in team sports than the development of reliable soldiers for the British empire. Participation in a sport such as rugby was widely thought also to offer an education in ‘character’ – an elusive but cardinal nineteenth century British virtue. Something of this ethos, albeit in a transmuted form, lives on in my own twenty first century training sessions and match days out on the rugby field.

Rugby time is not just an opportunity for the boys I teach to do some exercise, but to develop some understanding of rugby tactics and strategy, while mastering the basic skills needed to play the game. Linked to these is the question of teamwork (an echo, perhaps, of the Victorian esprit de corps) – and this is where I think the meat of the matter vis a vis ‘character’ really lies.

For teamwork involves appreciating one’s role and responsibility as an individual within a group, while being realistic about what you have to offer in terms of skills, accepting what you need to do in terms of duties, and appreciating what you are reliant on others for. At its heart, then, is the need for a sense of realism but also of recognition. Team members must recognise that no one can stand apart as an island (if things are going to work well for the team), and to recognise also that everyone in the team has something of value to bring to the table. Sometimes, this might involve the humble recognition that others have more to offer than you do in a particular area. Always it is about learning to see and to trust the good in others. Meanwhile, learning to appreciate that your own desire for personal glory should only be realised if it best serves the interests of the group is, for some boys, a challenging (not to say ongoing) experience.

On match days, I try to ensure that victories are an occasion not just for congratulation but for calm and constructive feedback. There’s plenty of scope for improvement in an U15C team, just as there is in most teams: matches aren’t just about getting the win – they are an opportunity to learn and reflect. Equally, I aim to offer equanimity in the face of defeat (admittedly there haven’t been many of those this season!): defeats usually happen because of a mis-match of quality or some bad luck. Best to appreciate this as objectively as possible, calmly learn from the experience, and move on.

Even if the Victorian language of ‘character’ no longer comes naturally to many, then, it seems clear to me that the psychological and educational benefits of participation in team sport still matter. It’s a privilege of my working week to try to foster these.

Reading the Aeneid with teenagers

Since first being introduced to it as a teenager, I have loved Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid. The experience of studying the Aeneid was what made me want to continue studying the ancient world at university. My enthusiasm for the Aeneid remains undimmed today as I find myself teaching the poem to my own pupils. This said, it’s a genuine challenge to try to get a class of teenage boys interested in reading ancient poetry…

It’s helpful, therefore, that the storyline of the Aeneid is far from dull. Aeneas is the strapping warrior who flees Troy, his home city, after a debacle involving audacious Greek cunning and a large wooden horse. He washes up on the North African shoreline, where he falls into the lap of Dido, captivating queen of Carthage (modern Tunis), who puts him up in style in her not-so-humble abode. Dido, listening to Aeneas tell of his Odysseus-like wanderings since his escape from Troy, is struck by Cupid’s bow. Aeneas, for his part, is enchanted by Dido – but, tragically for both Dido and himself, he has bigger fish to fry (or so says Jupiter, king of the gods). He must leave Carthage immediately and press ahead to Italy, where his arrival will ensure the foundation (in the distant future) of the city of Rome.

This is the situation that confronts the reader in the first four books (of twelve) of the poem. By leaving Dido, Aeneas discards romantic love in the name of duty, eschewing the queen of Carthage’s luxurious court and its exotic African location. He thereby ensures that an as yet undistinguished patch of Italy will one day be not just the home of a few clueless sheep and a sentimental, rambling old monarch (Evander, whom he meets in book 8), but the centre of the greatest empire in the world, a war machine, and the bringer and self-appointed standard bearer of ‘civilisation’.

Much of the excitement of this story lies in its sweeping scale, its coverage of vast territories of space and time. In its geography, the Aeneid traverses the Mediterranean, navigating both physical space and the boundaries between neighbouring cultures. In terms of history, the poem famously blends material relating to the mythical past, and indeed the mythical future (insofar as Virgil integrates allusions to the emperor in his own contemporary Rome, Augustus), together with its tale of Aeneas.

If its vast scope is so central a feature of the poem, the value of a GCSE paper which focuses on only a few lines of the poem can reasonably be doubted. How could pupils preparing to take this paper gain a sense of the vastness of the canvas Virgil is using, when their eyes are trained only on a few dozen verses?

One answer here is that they can’t, and that they should just get on and read the whole 12 books of the poem by way of compensation. Knowing what I do about the reading proclivities of teenagers, I think it’s fair to say that this sort of recommendation would be unlikely to be acted upon by everyone. It’s fortunate, then, that numerous passages of the Aeneid present in microcosm several of the poem’s main overarching themes.

The passage I’ve been covering in recent weeks with my GCSE class fits this description. In it, Aeneas faces up to the reality that he needs to leave behind Carthage – and his lover, Dido – in order to continue his journey, over the Mediterranean, to Italy. Doing so is about fulfilling his own personal destiny, and acting in accordance with the wishes of Jupiter, king of the gods. The passage raises questions about determinism and free will: is Aeneas really ‘free’ to act as he wishes, when he has a destiny to fulfil and the demands of the king of the gods to obey?

When Dido learns that Aeneas is preparing to leave, she’s distraught (it is her emotional state, not Aeneas’, that Virgil dwells on). Virgil likens her to a deranged follower of the god Bacchus, god of wine, drunkenness and orgiastic ritual, and he uses different poetic effects to illustrate her disconsolate, fluttering state of mind. On a superficial reading, the comparison to a Bacchus worshipper is profoundly unflattering to Dido – yet isn’t Bacchus (like Jupiter) a god? And isn’t his divine expertise concerned with precisely those energies and experiences which ordinary ‘civilised’ society can’t cope with? On this reading, Dido’s experience as a quasi-Bacchant looks authentic and human. Why should she acquiesce humbly to the diktats of Jupiter, as Aeneas does? This involves breaking off a special love affair and, as a matter of grim duty, repressing true feelings (Aeneas for the most part maintains a stoical silence), while setting sail for a dimly apprehended future – because he’s assured he must. Aeneas puts the political above the personal: must this be the essence of genuine heroism?

Virgil often highlights Aeneas’ religious piety in the Aeneid, but there’s a sense that this ‘piety’ often amounts to little more than doing what he is told by a powerful agent: on the contrary, Dido, by giving full vent to her true thoughts and setting enormous store on the value of her human connection with Aeneas, presents a threat to Jupiter’s designs. She is emotionally alert, passionate and communicative of her feelings, even as her character suffers a forlorn and tragic demise: she ends up killing herself as Aeneas leaves her city.

One kind of teenage boy will incline, at least initially, to a misogynistic interpretation of this episode, finding in it evidence of male mastery, strength and control and contrasting it with a pitiable instance of female weakness and desperation. But arguably it is Aeneas, not Dido, who comes closest to being a puppet on a god’s string (he leaves for Italy ‘not of his own accord’) and it is he who might stand accused of emotional inarticulacy: is this really a case of male strength and control in action? And is a masculinity constituted by strength and control here something a reader ought, in the end, to admire?

Lots of big themes swirl through Virgil’s writing in the Aeneid – and this is just one such case. My experience has been that, even if pupils are focussed on only a few dozen lines of the poem, there is plenty of exploring to do. It crosses my sceptical mind to wonder whether it would be equally possible to get as much from a few dozen lines of a Dickens or a Steinbeck.