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Why we don't need exams anymore

Education costs a lot of money. Governments spend billions on it every year and I think it's reasonable to want to get some kind of financial benefit for the economy as a result. Even better if it's a measurable benefit because then you can use the results to get yourself elected again! The last thing we want to do is sink our hard-earned taxes into a bottomless pit of a school system, only to have half-witted morons coming out the end of it unable to hold down a simple job. So there is rightness in wanting to uphold standards and ensure a good quality education. There is also a good argument for making education as standard as possible, so that everyone, regardless of their economic background, gets the same opportunities as anyone else. I would not want a society where some people are consigned to the dustbin before they even get a chance to prove themselves.

Let's be brutally honest though, and question how much of what gets learned at school is actually useful in a work environment. I actually worked as a statistician for an insurance company and even then the amount and complexity of maths I used was not that great. That is quite a niche industry and in reality the majority of jobs do not require any maths skills at all, and if they do only very basic arithmetic. The history I studied has been of no direct value in my career, nor the English literature, or most of what I learned in science class. It was all very interesting though and I think I am the better as a person for having studied it. Most of the useful training I received was from my colleagues while I was on the job, and basically just figuring stuff out for myself or from the internet or friends. I'm ready to admit now, having worked as a pricing analyst for 3 years, that I knew basically nothing of the role when I started and 95% of what I learned was on the job and not from any of my formal education. I'm sure I'm not the only person who's had this experience. In fact, unless you are a doctor or a lawyer or have done some other vocational training, then you're probably in the same boat as me. In my mind, education has only 3 purposes:

1) To teach a specific skill or piece of knowledge that will be required to achieve a specific goal in the future. For this I would include, being able to read and write, knowing about different medications, basically technical training. 2) To teach more general skills (sometimes called soft-skills), that are just generally useful to have as your way of working. This could be things like, organisational skills, communication skills, etc. 3) To enrich and broaden your horizons and stimulate your mind to new ideas and ways of being. To me this would be art, poetry, history or anything else that can give you a new perspective on things.

I think though we have a basic problem in our education system, in that it is thoroughly confused about these three and has mashed them together into a disjointed mess. THE SOFT-SKILLS are not specifically taught, but you're just sort of left to figure it out. If you're late for class, don't get your homework done, i.e. are unorganised, then you fall behind. There is no assistance given by the school, you're left to either figure it out or have parents wise enough to teach it. So we're not giving a standard educational level there, children with better parents will likely develop better soft-skills, those unlucky in the lottery are left to fend for themselves. But it's not as if we even need a school to provide this sort of experience, any organised activity with goals and deadlines would build this sort of skill-set. THE TECHNICAL SKILLS that need to actually be taught by a school are relatively few. Beyond an ability to read and write, speak the language (or a foreign language), basic maths, and the ability to reason, what else are schools actually offering their students? Why are we dilligently training scores of school graduates each year to be able to do trigonometry? What's the point? They will never need it. They don't need to know why WWI started or anything else to be a good worker. So I think on the skills side of things, we are unnecessarily labouring to provide students highly trained in a load of nonsense, while the skills that actually might give them a headstart in their career they are left to stumble across themselves.

THE AESTHETIC BEAUTY of many of the subjects, and the enriching experience of studying them and the knowledge that lies within, are things that I think are hard to place a monetary value on. Would we want a generation of people to grow up in ignorance of the slave trade and the holocaust? I doubt it. Similarly, is there any direct, measurable or financial benefit to teaching Shakespeare? No, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't do it. I think we need to sit down and work out exactly, (and forget what we've got currently), what skills we want people to have when they leave school, then design a curriculum and train teachers that reliably produces students that have those skills. All other technical training (like algebra) should just then be scrapped.

What time there is left should be devoted to inspiring students and expanding their horizons to the world of knowledge that has been developed so far. Plant a seed that will grow into a mighty oak of curiosity and wonder at the natural world and the creations of the minds of the people in it. They'll come out the school system buzzing with excitement and desperate to get out into the world and make their mark, and they will have been equipped with the tools they need to do that and nothing else. They will have enjoyed learning so much, I think they would continue to do it, and easily grasp new techniques and job-specific training as they need it. Can you test that? No you can't. I don't think really matters though. What will employers use to assess the capabilities of students? Well, just design a set of competency based exams that are specifically designed by employers to test the skills they particularly want. Then before you apply to a company you take the test and they can sort the wheat from the chaff themselves. Why burden the education system with all this unnecessary training just to make it easier for employers to filter CVs?

(Published on 1 May 2017)


There's (probably) nothing wrong with your child

Our education system is in desperate need of a dramatic overhaul. There are so many ways in which its failing students that it`s hard to write them all in one article. And in my experience it doesn`t have much to do with the teaching staff. There are of course exceptions but in the main I think most teachers work very hard and have good intentions. The problem we've got is that the entire orientation of the education system is incorrect. It is, in effect, a giant, state-funded CV filtering system. Let me justify that comment if you will.

One example I cite to back that claim up is the concept of "grade inflation". This is a concern from (presumably government officials, although I`ve never actually seen anyone campaigning strongly on this issue) some people that grades constantly creep up higher and higher. This would only be a problem if you were concerned about the ability of the schools to differentiate between student`s intelligence and ability. In actual fact the grade you get is not based exactly on the score you receive on the paper, but in where you stack up in relation to the rest of the country that year. So if you`re in the top 10% of scores, you get an A* (or level 9), and so forth. The entire system is geared towards differentiating between "the smart" students, and the, well... not so "smart" ones (apparently).

Compare that to something like, the driving test. The driving test is designed to get students up to a certain level of competence, and those that make the grade pass the test and those that don`t fail. THAT is true education. We have a level of ability we want to attain, and we let the students know what that is, then we educate them until they reach that standard and then we give them a certificate when they`ve achieved it. They are then a qualified driver. Why shouldn`t it be the same for Mathematics? We should decide on what level of maths we require as a society, then set that standard, let the students know what it is, and educate them until they reach that standard. Once that`s all done we should pat them on the back and give them a certificate showing they have the required ability in mathematics. Job Done.

In other words we should be aiming to get every student up to an A* / Level 9. We should be getting 100% of students get the top grade, or at least target that. But whenever schools get anywhere close there are cries of "Grade Inflation", and "Exams are getting too easy" etc. and the goal posts get moved once again and all the work teachers invested into teaching students certain things is thrown on the garbage heap and they are forced to start again. Imagine, that. Imagine in your job, right now, every time you start producing good work, and hitting your targets, your boss decides to arbitrarily make your job more difficult, removes all the tools you developed for doing the current job, and makes you start from scratch. AND THEN claims that it`s because your job was too easy anyway and had nothing to do with what you did. I mean, a salesperson, after having made millions in sales, is forced to give up his address book, throw away all the product information he`s collected over the years, burn his sales pitch and learn a new admin system. Not because he was doing anything wrong, but because he was doing too well at doing what he had already been asked to do.

It is really quite staggering. There`s a second problem here, and that is even if we moved over to this type of education system, we`re still far from being optimum. For starters there needs to be a decision made as to what skills people really need, and why we are educating them. Of course there is the general stuff around having a wider understanding of the adult world and being a good citizen, but mainly I think the government spends billions each year to try and make more productive workers that can earn more money and pay more tax. It would be an unsustainable system if they didn`t. So what then, has inverse trigonometry got to do with anything? I love maths and very much enjoyed studying it, (and to be honest I wouldn`t stop anyone studying it if they were interested as it is such a fascinating subject), but we don`t really need people to know most of it to be productive workers in the economy. Really we don`t.

I`ve tried in the past to convince students there is some value in this stuff (when they`ve asked me the standard "what`s the point in this stuff?" question), and the more I think about it, the more I think they`re right. There is no real point, except that it`s interesting. There is no other reason. Unless you specifically need it for a job, but then that should be vocational training like any other job (accountancy for example). So you wind up with students not interested in the subject, being forced to learn something they`ll never need (and forget immediately after the exam), changing every 5-10 years how it`s taught anyway so the teachers have to constantly re-do work they`ve already done, all for what? It costs billions and there is absolutely no point whatsoever. It achieves nothing. We need a total rethink of what skills people actually need in the work place, and base the courses around that. And then just train people to get those skills so that employers see that if they`ve got what`s required to do the job (rather than trying to infer it abstractly from someone`s academic scores). And we should leave people free to study academic subjects if they wish (the ones that are interested will do it anyway).

What we`ve got now is totally bananas. So if your child is struggling, it might be in part because they are caught in a completely nutty system. Nevertheless, the system is there and you need to play the game. The grades do matter and that still is important (even if only because everyone agrees that they are!). So my approach to tutoring is very much, if they`ve got to do it anyway I try to make it as interesting as possible. I try to show the students the inherent beauty of the subject so they can get a glimpse of what I see when I look at Mathematics. I don`t try and con them into believing that there`s any point in it other than that. And I do take the grades very seriously, ultimately after the years of toil if you haven`t got the piece of paper to show for it then it really has been a waste of time.

(Published on 7 Jul 2016)


We need more Bankers, and quick!

I can't help thinking there is a desperate shortage of bankers worldwide.

The average banker should expect to earn over £1.5m in bonuses each year. To understand this phenomenon, think about the difference between Tom Cruise and McDonalds. In about 3 seconds I've obtained the box office results for the last few Tom Cruise films: Mission Impossible - $195,042,377 Edge of Tomorrow - $100,206,256 Oblivion - $89,107,235 Pretty decent. In fact his lowest grossing film over the last decade was a mere $15m, and that is a bit of a freak really, they are much more typically was around the $100m mark on average.

So hiring Tom Cruise to be in your film is like buying a golden goose. That's why he'll get paid tens of millions to be in the film. Now imagine this, imagine there were actually 5 Tom Cruise actors, all identical and all able to bring in that kind of cash for a film. If a film company wasn't happy with Tom Cruise #1's high fees, they could go to the Tom Cruise who is out of work and offer him less. The Toms would have to engage in a bidding war to win the business and they would all be taking lower wages. It is the simple law of supply and demand. Now imagine I walk into a McDonalds and ask £400 an hour to flip burgers. It's not nearly as much as Tom gets paid for his films, but you can be as certain I'll get turned away as you can be certain of Tom making a box-office smash hit. The reason is there are many many people that would be willing to work that job for significantly less than that, and so the McDonalds guy simply can go elsewhere and pay less. So Tom Cruise gets paid millions because he's one of the few people that can do what he does, whereas a McDonalds person gets paid minimum wage as there is no shortage of people willing and able to do that job.

So if we're worried about Bankers salaries, isn't it just a problem that we have a shortage of Bankers? The demand is so great to hire their skills, and there is such a shortage of able persons to do the job, that the banks are having to pay very large sums of money to get and keep them there. How about we just start a massive training drive to deliver the next generation of bankers to fill the demand? To be honest I don't feel that great about the idea either. I think a more basic problem of bankers receiving high wages, is how banks make those sums of money at all. There is an interesting measure of financial services industries which calculates the percentage of the economy that is down to financial services compared to other industries that like, actually do something or make something for people.

Clearly financial services are important, and can be a great help to economic prosperity. The ease of paying people online for example is one of the main ways I make money as a tutor. Easy access to car loans, mortgages, business loans, credit cards and other financial services is actually quite useful for building an economy. It is however, not the economy. It cannot actually make anything, it is the grease for the wheels and not the engine. We have in the UK around 13% of the economy roughly devoted to financial services. Compare that to Germany which is more like 3%. To me it's a bit like going to a car wash where there are about 20 guys fetching water buckets and only one guy with a sponge actually doing any work. Sure he's got ample supply of the tools and means he needs to do his job, but he's the only one actually pulling his weight and getting the show on the road.

I'm not knocking the banking sector, but I think it has gotten a bit bloated compared to what we really require to get along. Trading on the stock market is all well and good, but the trader can only make money if the actual company stock he's buying makes money. And it's not like any body else's life has gotten better when he makes a killing on the stock market. Whereas when you buy an apple, your life has actually been improved because you can now eat that apple, so the providers of the apple, the farmers and shops etc, are getting financially rewarded for helping other people, as they should. I don't even begrudge Mark Zuckerberg his wealth because to be honest Facebook has helped millions of people worldwide do what they could not do before he made it. As I said financial services have their place and they do to a certain extent contribute to the success of society. But do we really need hundreds of highly strung traders making millions sitting at a computer fiddling with bits of money back and forth? Banks make their money solely on debt, maybe the ridiculous bankers salaries are a sign we're borrowing too much?

(Published on 30 May 2016)


Why footballers get paid so much

A complaint I often hear from people is that it is somehow morally wrong for footballers to get paid vast sums of money, for example £200,000 a week, to kick a ball leather around a field of grass, when there are jobs ten times more important the get paid a fraction. For example I cannot imagine the local bin men getting paid that much, but I know who I would rather live without. The blame however does not lie with the football clubs signing the big cheques. For them it is a very sound business move to pay that sum of money, since a good player can return them more than their money back if the team can win certain competitions (they get a cash prize) and in merchandise sales. Merchandise is an important one, because the football club is a brand and they can make a lot of money just by becoming well known and selling lots of T-shirts. It's not unusual for football clubs to be earning around £500m a year, and teams like Manchester Utd for example, only make about 25% of their income through the sale of tickets, another 25% through TV rights, and the remaining 50% via other sales. So the benefits to Man Utd of buying and keeping certain players, could be worth millions in the sale of mugs and shirts, and would more than compensate for the weekly costs of keeping him in mansions and Ferrari's.

It's got nothing to do with right and wrong, it's a simple equation of spend £1 make £2. It makes complete sense and I don't blame them for it one single bit. The real question is, how on Earth can the clubs make so much money from hiring these players? Where does all that revenue come from? Well that money is all coming from ordinary people like you and me. Every person that pays a Sky Sports subscription, buys a replica shirt, goes to a pub to watch a game, buys a newspaper to read about the team, or basically in any way spends any time, attention or money on football or something related to football, he is supporting the stupendously high wages of the footballers.

Where people spend their time and attention, is where the money is made. Why is so much food sold all over the country? Because people think about food probably at least 3-4 times a day. They have their attention on it and so they spend their money on it. Youtube for example, has made an entire business of just getting people's attention and then selling that attention over to advertisers. So what we really need to look at, is why do people put so much more importance on kicking a ball of leather around compared to real-world issues like, combating corruption, organised crime, economic prosperity, health and education. It's not difficult to see why really, and that is basically those things are difficult to understand and uncomfortable to think about. It's a lot easier to read about the latest referee scandal on your daily commute and think about the game you watched last night, than it is to consider how to combat the insidious rot of corruption that is literally bringing some countries to their knees.

I'm not really against football to be honest, I quite like the game and I'll occasionally play or watch a bit of football and be entertained by it. Games are important and people should be entertained, nothing wrong with that. However I think we need to reshuffle our priorities a bit. When more people have got more opinions about the England squad selection for the next major international competition than they have about their own government's policies, something has gone amiss. So don't blame the football clubs or even the footballers for their silly wages, blame the millions of people paying their wage bill, the football fans. And before we get all high and mighty over the silly men watching their silly game, think about how much money, time and attention gets spent on make-up and that probably out-ranks thinking about or working on solving world poverty so we're all at it really.

(Published on 17 May 2016)