Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Strapped American colleges keep leaders in luxury

From the many windows of her stone mansion, MIT president Susan Hockfield enjoys a commanding view of sailboats gliding along the Charles River. When Northeastern president Joseph Aoun steps outside his five-story brick town house, he finds himself just across the street from Boston Common.

Their counterparts at other private colleges reside in luxury as well, many on centuries-old estates surrounded by well-tended gardens and lawns cared for by loyal staffs. The homes, many provided by universities as part of their presidents’ compensation, are the ultimate perk in this college-rich region, but one that increasingly appears to represent a bygone era.

Now the opulence risks standing out amid frozen faculty salaries, widespread layoffs, and slashed programs. While the houses often serve an important ceremonial role and it is questionable how much money could be saved by their elimination, the very mention of them has elicited low-level grumbling on campuses and anxiety among university officials over the Globe’s request to tour them.

“It seems terribly unfair that people who are being laid off can’t even afford to make their modest mortgage payments, while people at the top are living in luxury,’’ said Desiree Goodwin, a Harvard library assistant who has seen dozens of workers lose their jobs across campus. “They’re not really being open about the kind of lifestyle they’re trying to maintain while making these cuts.’’

Goodwin acknowledges she’s never had the occasion to set foot in Elmwood, the 1767 home of Harvard president Drew Faust. The pale yellow 12-room Colonial and its carriage house sit behind a white fence on Cambridge’s Tory Row, where wealthy families loyal to the crown lived before the revolution.

The interiors of these homes remain a mystery even to many on their respective campuses. And when a reporter requested entry into eight of the residences, many of which do not pay property taxes to their municipalities, the doors to all but one remained resolutely closed.

Some schools’ public relations teams expressed concern that it wouldn’t look good to show off their presidents’ luxury quarters amid penny-pinching times. Those thoughts also crossed the mind of Wellesley president Kim Bottomly, but she ultimately concluded, “We have nothing to hide.’’

Last week, she opened her estate to a reporter and a photographer, even allowing a glimpse at her bedroom, which overlooks Lake Waban.

“I’m living here as a custodian of history,’’ Bottomly said of the 1854 home where Wellesley’s founders resided. “I’m proud to be able to show off the first building on campus.’’

Her colleagues were not as open. MIT and Harvard reported that their presidents simply were “not around.’’ The presidents of Tufts and Boston universities should be afforded a measure of privacy, said their spokespersons.

More here


A state school in Waterlooville, Hampshire, has been accused of potentially creating a "back-door selection" system by introducing a compulsory 'eco-friendly' uniform costing about £100. Oaklands Roman Catholic School in Waterlooville has introduced the uniform made from recycled bottles which can only be bought from the school or from the Schoolwear Shop in nearby Havant.

Other schools also have some degree of exclusivity, where logoed polo shirts or jumpers can only be bought from the school or one shop.

MPs have raised concerns that such expensive uniforms could deter poorer families from sending children to their chosen school...

Parents have pointed out that supermarkets like Tesco can supply entire uniforms for only £3.50.

More here

Britain's education system condemns children to second-class lives

Former education minister George Walden breaks his silence over our education system, saying the lack of selective state schools condemns children to second-class lives

I shouldn't be writing this. After resigning as an education minister, then from Parliament, I vowed not to talk about education, and have turned down radio and television invitations to comment. Life is short, and the education debate, phony to the gills, seemed to be going nowhere. And nowhere is exactly where we have got in the last 15 years.

Reforming education, a friend sighed on my appointment, was like trying to disperse a fog with a hand grenade: after the flash and the explosion, the fog creeps back. So it proved under Thatcher, and so it has been under Blair and Brown.

In books I wrote after resigning, We Should Know Better and The New Elites, I said it wasn't just that comprehensives kept the poor in their place, while protecting escapees to the private sector from competition from below. No country where the wealthiest, best-schooled and most influential people had no stake in its education system could evolve a high-level state sector, and we would be no exception. Talk about improving standards to the point where no one would want to go private was a prime piece of educational bull.

That was 13 years ago, and it looks like I got out of the edbiz just in time. Our up/down, two-tier, comprehensive/private system is today more clearly kaput than ever, and Westminster's attempts to keep Humpty Dumpty together with ever more cash and legislative bits of string are an all-party waste of time. This year's A-level pass rate – we'll be at 100 per cent soon – is just part of the charade. In truth, we are going backwards. Sats are the perfect example. Labour, the teachers, Tory trendies and "arts community" complain that they stifle creativity. So why did we ever have them, together with a centrally imposed national curriculum? Because the teaching profession, in thrall to egalitarian fantasies and Flopsy Bunny teaching techniques, had failed in its primary duty to teach children to read and write and count.

Now the talk is of scrapping testing, at a time when studies have shown that the qualifications of the average teacher remain scandalously low. So how can we rely on them to teach the basics? Meanwhile, Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, encourages a return to the touchy-feely illusions of the Sixties and Seventies with his emotional intelligence lessons. In independent schools, such as the one he attended, they manage to educate the whole person, spelling, creativity and all, but in comprehensives it can only be one or the other.

Under Labour, confidence in examinations has finally collapsed. GCSEs in private schools are ten a penny, expectations in maths and science in dizzying decline, A-levels mean little to the best universities, and private schools are understandably contemplating the International Baccalaureat. So while Labour proclaims that A-level scores show that our children are getting smarter, we look set to become the only Western country with one examination for the rich and a less demanding one for the rest.

If it was all about resources, as Labour used to cry, then the "output" of our schools would have virtually doubled, in response to massively increased spending. There has been damage limitation and improvements here and there, and good teachers struggling against the odds, but measured against the needs of a changing world, education in Britain remains a running disaster.

The failure of the comprehensives has sent social mobility reeling backwards. It is right that clever, well-educated children from comfortable families should rise to senior positions, and wrong to try to block their ascent by doing away with the charitable status of independent schools, or interfering with university admissions. But it is equally wrong that expensively educated mediocrities should be over-promoted in so many areas.

In universities, after sensible reforms, it was the Tories who began the great decline. Turning the polytechnics into universities was a first step in the comprehensivisation of higher education, a policy intensified by Labour. Its cram-them-in massification of the sector has helped downgrade the value of degrees in employers' eyes. If only the tens of thousands of jobless graduates in low-grade studies in English, media and photography or contemporary art had learned something useful in polytechnics, they could have been in work.

Why is there so little honest discussion about the failings of the system, and their causes? Because the debate on education is mendacious and hypocritical to the point where it demeans our public life. The rot starts at the top, with the issue of selection, to which all political leaders are opposed. The fact that they were selectively educated themselves is not the point; what matters is how they use the power and the influence their privilege helped give them.

The deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harriet Harman, a well-born lady and fiery egalitarian, sent her children to selective schools. Asked to explain herself, this grande dame of the Left simply stamps her little feet, waving away questions about her integrity as plebian insolence.

Contemptuous of middle-class aspirations, David Cameron is against selection, too. As his deferential spokesman David Willetts put it, selective grammars entrench advantage. Like most Tories, Willetts sent his children to private schools, highly selective places in the financial, academic, and sometimes social sense, that certainly "entrench advantage." So did I. But I don't spit in the eye of people who want something similar in the state sector. Tory policy is to smile on selection for those with money to buy it, and outlaw it for the 90 per cent for whom a private or grammar school education is out of bounds.

In much of the media, it is the same. The Daily Telegraph is an honourable exception, but few papers are prepared to give selection an honest hearing. In private it is a different matter. The former editor of a national daily, now an ubiquitous columnist, writes tirelessly against it. His child went to Winchester. Close inquiry is scarcely necessary to discover the secondary schools preferred by highly paid BBC executives, though the tenor of their programmes is staunchly pro-comprehensive.

The solidarity-in-hypocrisy of our new elites in politics and the media helps ensure that nothing changes. Recently we have learned that the number of state-school A-level candidates doing media studies has increased four-fold under Labour, while hard subjects like physics are increasingly the preserve of the private schools – 7 per cent of the total. While we fail to exploit all our talents, hundreds of millions of Indians and Chinese are being more rigorously taught. We should do the maths while we can about what this means for our future prosperity.

A Chinese minister for education once asked me whether it was true that we put pupils of different abilities in the same class. Inscrutability is a myth: his face was agape with incredulity when I explained the comprehensive system. The truth is that education in Britain is not primarily about learning, it is about social class. Antique class-consciousness on the liberal Left seems set to ensure that, when hyper-competitive Asians dominate the globe, we go down as the last of the anti-elitist Mohicans.

The gap between state and private schools brings cultural condescension and top-down exploitation. The Tory education spokesman Michael Gove has deplored the amount of intelligence, eloquence and ingenuity used by people selling trash TV to those less well-schooled than themselves, and their "efforts to appear street". We've heard less of this recently. Perhaps his boss David Cameron – a former PR man for Carlton TV, had a word?

I am not being cynical: the cynics are the well-heeled and well-schooled who fob off the masses with a sub-standard education and a pap culture. Nor am I defeatist. Solutions exist, and I know when they will come about. They will involve modern forms of selection (see Germany) to ensure that non-academic talent is encouraged, the voluntary opening-up of independent day schools to all the talents, the restoration of something like the polytechnics to give prestige to advanced vocational studies, and the privatisation of the top universities.

Such is our gift for inertia that it will only happen when the Asian economies impinge unrelentingly on every aspect of our lives. My guess is 10-15 years. Until then we can expect a lot more dishonest debate, which I look forward, eagerly, to sitting out.


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