Education, chaos, and lawsuits: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Way back when pandemics were nothing more than handy plot devices for weary writers or the nightmares of sensible scientists, I remember reading about a different nightmare scenario, the investor state dispute settlement (ISDS) clause that was being negotiated into an assortment of international trade and investment agreements. It allows foreign companies to sue governments in what are always described as highly secretive tribunals (and I’m paraphrasing some slippery language, so I may not be hitting this next bit directly on the head) for money they lost, or might have lost, due to government actions. 

I read a lot of nightmare scenarios, and I try not to let them keep me awake at night. This one came from sensible sources, so I didn’t disbelieve it, but nothing happened (at least where I could see it), the world as I knew it didn’t end, so I went back to sleep. 

Sunday’s paper, though, brought the news that it’s time to wake up. Big-money law firms are shooting emails to their clients on the subject. One, Ropes & Gray, wrote that actions brought under investment treaties could be “a powerful tool to recover or prevent loss resulting from Covid-19-related government actions.” 

The fear of lawsuits may mean that governments will back away from decisive responses to the pandemic, or to its economic impact, for fear of getting sued. investor 

Just when you thought we’d hit bottom, right?

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New research suggests something we already know: that we still don’t know much about how actively kids spread Covid-19. Researchers in South Korea first suggested that kids from ten to nineteen are better virus spreaders than adults, but once people dug deeper into their it became less clear just who infected who. 

So the current best educated guess is that kids in that age group are at least no more likely to spread the infection than adults are. Unless, of course, they go out and act stupid, in which case they will, but not because they’re biologically better conduits.

But–and there’s always a but–kids do tend to have contact with more people than adults do, which would mean they could be great conduits, but for social rather than biological reasons.

I hope I’ve confused the picture sufficiently.

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Irrelevant photo: Virginia creeper getting ready for autumn.

A company in Cardiff has developed a quick test that spots Covid-19 T cells. T cells last longer than antibodies and have their own ways of fighting infection. They’re the things your body turns to when the first line of defense crumbles. 

The test may be useful in developing a vaccine.

It’s been possible to test for T cells before this, but it’s a slower process. The developer, Dr. HIndley, said, the new test  “stripped back everything to the bare bones” and a lab can get a result in 24 hours.

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England has been in chaos over A-level grades

A bit of background: A-levels are a standardized test that students hoping to go to university (if you’re American, substitute college) first take and then submit. But the tests were canceled this year because of the virus. 

What to do? Well, every year teachers submit predicted grades–an estimate of how well students will do–and students either prove them right or don’t.

Could the students use their predicted instead? No, that would be too simple. The government stepped in to prevent the horror of grade inflation by applying an algorithm to the grades and creating grade deflation, penalizing students from poor and minority backgrounds, from schools that don’t usually do well, and from larger classes in more popular subjects. It didn’t penalize students from affluent, non-minority backgrounds, good schools, and private schools. Or students who were in very small classes.

Some 40% of the estimated grades were downgraded.  

An assortment of students lost the university places they’d been offered because their grades had been downgraded.

Then when everyone started shouting, the government said, fine, your school can appeal your grades. 

Then the secretary of state for education, on behalf of the government, said the process was robust and fair.

Then the government said, okay, we won’t charge your school if it appeals your grades and loses, something it would normally do.

Then the exam regulator published advice which contradicted something the government had said about the appeals process.

Then the regulator withdrew its advice. 

Then several students filed a lawsuit against the regulator.

Then members of parliament from all parties got inundated with letters from their constituents and felt the need to make very-unhappy noises to the government.

Then Boris Johnson, our alleged prime minister, went on vacation.

Then everybody remembered that the grades for a different standardized test for somewhat younger students are due to be released on Thursday and all hell was going to break loose all over again. Or not all over again, because this particular hell hadn’t stopped breaking yet.

Then I finally understood why universities didn’t declare the whole system invalid and accept the students they wanted in the first place: The government had limited the number of students they can accept. Why did they do that? I don’t understand the logic here, so I’ll quote an explanation from March of this year:

Strict limits on the number of students that each university in England can recruit were imposed by the government in an effort to avoid a free-for-all on admissions, with institutions plunged into financial turmoil as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the Guardian has learned.

“A government source said each university would face limits on the number of UK and EU undergraduates it could admit for the academic year starting in September, in a move backed by higher education leaders. It will be the first such limit since the university admission cap was lifted in 2015.”

Exactly why extra students would be a problem when they’re losing international students I can’t explain, but it’s good to know that the government wants to avoid turmoil.

Then the secretary of state for education said he was really sorry and he hadn’t meant any of it. Everyone could use their predicted grades. And the cap on the number of students? They hadn’t meant that either. 

Then the universities were left to pick up the pieces, which you’ll find scattered on the floor of admissions offices all over the country, along with the admissions officers themselves, who are currently unable to haul themselves into their chairs.

And the kids–or former kids–who hadn’t been able to take the test get to pick up the pieces as well, because reversing the decision didn’t make everything snap back to the way it had been before their grades were lowered. Some kids missed out on scholarships. Programs with a limited number of places have already offered those places to other candidates. 

Scotland got itself into the same problem but made a quick u-turn, reverting to the grades the teachers had predicted. Why did England hold out for so long? Why, to wring the maximum amount of chaos out of the situation. Why look like a jerk by reversing yourself quickly when you can look like a world-class jerk and make scads of enemies by reversing yourself slowly? I’m a devotee of the mess as an art form–it’s underestimated, in my opinion–but really, guys, schools start again in September and I’ll have plenty to work with. You can stop anytime you like. 

Which reminds me to say that the government’s abolishing National Health England, folding it into the test-and-trace system. Since test and trace has been a disaster, they’re handing the two services to the person who’s been in charge of it, Dido Harding. We’ll catch up with that eventually.

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This final item has nothing to do with Covid, but let’s toss it in anyway: The Home Office refused a British lawyer a visa he hadn’t applied for. 

He got married abroad and applied for a visa so his wife to join him in the country, submitting hundreds of pages of documents and a fee that topped £3,000. The Home Office refused him a £95 visa for a visit. And he couldn’t appeal the decision because he hadn’t applied for that visa.

Do we summon up the spirit of Joseph Heller (that’s Catch-22‘s author) or Franz Kafka?

When a newspaper called the Home Office, presumably for a quote, they decided to consider the application the man had actually filed.

His brother, who also married abroad, was refused a visa for his wife on the grounds that his description of the family restaurant’s menu differed from his father’s description. The father said it served pizza. The son said it also served garlic bread, chicken wings, and ice cream.

It’s a good thing capital punishment’s been abolished in the U.K. or they might’ve been hung for that.

A judge overturned the Home Office decision and ordered them to pay the couple £140. They still haven’t gotten it.

Standardization and movable goal posts: It’s the pandemic news from Britain

Earlier this year, in a King Kong meets Godzilla moment, Covid-19 ate the end-of-year standardized tests that older Britain’s students would normally have taken. For kids who were applying to universities, that meant–ack!–they had no test grades to submit. 

But they didn’t have no grades at all, because every year teachers estimate the grades their students can expect to get on the standardized tests, and kids submit those with their applications. Then they take the tests and submit the actual scores, which (or so I’ve read) are on average lower than the predicted grades. 

So what’s a sober, responsible education system to do when the actual tests can’t be taken? Why, make up a system as it goes along, of course. 

Scotland ran up against this first, since (limited) power over the schools has been devolved to the governments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Scotland’s solution was to use an algorithm–because algorithms are fair, unbiased, don’t run for office, and don’t leave crumbs under their desks–to compare students’ predicted grades with the grades students from their schools got in previous years and with the lifecycle of the common earthworm. After the algorithm had ruminated for microseconds, it spit out corrected grades for everyone.

Irrelevant photo. Montbretia, a flower that spreads like mad and chases gardeners through their dreams.

And what happened? Lo and behold, the poorer (or in other ways the more disadvantaged) the families of the kids you went to school were, the more points you lost. Because guess what: Kids from your school just don’t do that well on standardized tests, so be realistic, you wouldn’t have either. 

All predictable hell broke loose, and the Scottish government backed down. The predicted grades will stand.

Then the hot potato was thrown to England, Wales, and Northern Ireland

How can you throw a hot potato simultaneously to three countries? Through the magic of privatization, that’s how. Our politicians can make one potato into three and lower taxes on corporations and the richest 1% all at the same time.

Okay, I’ll come clean: Privatization has nothing to do with this. I just slipped it in because I like to blame things on privatization. And I’m right often enough that the habit gets reinforced. See below.

England is saying students can accept the grades “based on teacher estimations” (there’s a lot of wiggle room in there, so I’m relying on quotation marks to keep everything in place), or swap them for the marks they got on their mock exams. Or they can take the test in the fall. 

Assuming that reality doesn’t intervene and cancel the tests again, although no one seems to be talking about that, at least not publicly.

Of course, that means this coming academic year goes straight into the trash.

Head teachers (if you’re American, read that as principals), though, are saying that mock exams aren’t graded in any consistent way. And some schools canceled mock exams when they saw the pandemic headed for them, so their kids have none to fall back on.

Wales says its modeling is fair, and nearly half of its student grades are based on AS levels. AS levels are a related test taken earlier that I’m not going to try to explain because, c’mon, I don’t really understand this stuff either. Just nod soberly and no one will know how lost you are. 

Northern Ireland is saying it’ll let students appeal their grades on the basis of their mock exam scores. 

I can’t explain why universities aren’t stepping up and saying, “We’re not taking any of this seriously and we’ll be making our own judgements on the basis of [fill in the blank].” Maybe there’s nothing to slot into that blank. I’m too distant from the British educational system to tell you anything useful. You can almost hear them getting ready to say, “Nothing to do with me, your honor.”

Everyone who writes about this is required to use the phrase moving the goal posts. So think of Britain as a country of four nations (which aren’t necessarily getting along well at the moment), and in each of those nations two people are running and random directions, struggling to keep goal posts upright and the space between them more or less even, because if you lose that relationship they’re not goal posts anymore, they’re just posts.

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So much for the kids (or former kids) who’ve graduated. Let’s turn our jaded attention to the kids who are due back in school: Summer’s winding down and the government’s hell bent to get them back into the classroom. Because education matters and a generation is in danger of being lost. Because (somewhat less nobly) parents can’t go back to work until their kids can be safely stashed someplace. Because (still less nobly than that) the nation’s sandwich and coffee shops can’t sell sandwiches and coffee until office workers are poured back into their cubicles and deskicles. Without people pouring in and out of buildings, city centers are dying.

Spellcheck, in case you’re interested, doesn’t object to the word deskicle. What’s on earth has happened in the working world since I left? Are people really working at deskicles?

Schools will be safe, the government tells us. The kids will wash their hands and magical incantations will be both incanted and decanted over the school grounds at the start of each school day. Five-year-olds will be reminded every hour on the hour not to touch anything.

Oh, hell, don’t worry about the details. It’ll be fine.

And while that’s being released to the press, what should happen but that a couple of new bits of information appear, from the U.S. and Israel, about kids and the virus.

From a summer camp in Georgia comes the news that younger kids get infected as well as older ones. As the Center for Disease Control so poetically put it, “The findings demonstrate that Sars-CoV-2 spreads efficiently in a youth-centric overnight setting, resulting in high attack rates among persons in all age groups, despite efforts by camp officials to implement most recommended strategies to prevent transmission. . . .

“This investigation adds to the body of evidence demonstrating that children of all ages are susceptible to Sars-CoV-2 infection and, contrary to early reports, might play an important role in transmission.”

Israel had been fairly effective in clamping down on the virus, but in May it reopened its schools. By the end of the month, it had closed a hundred of them and ordered thousands of students and staff to quarantine. 

Epidemiologist William Hanage said, “If community transmission is low, the costs to kids of keeping schools closed are much greater than keeping them open.

“However if community transmission is high or increasing, opening schools can only add to it. It’s not clear by how much.” 

So nothing’s certain yet, but the reports are sobering. 

What does the government tell us? The education secretary, Gavin Williams, said on Monday that opening the schools carried few risks. And Public Health England, having apparently said in an unpublished study that older kids were more likely than younger ones to get and transmit the disease, publicly said that reports that it has recommended tougher rules for older kids were incorrect. Also wrong. And false. Did I mention false? 

“Parents can be reassured that to [blah blah blah] an extremely stringent system of controls by” et cetera. Also and so forth. 

It’ll all be fine. 

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A health minister, Edward Argar, told the world (or as much of it as was listening) that Britain’s system of tracing the contacts of infected people is almost as good as New Zealand’s

“We’ve traced a quarter of a million in the space of about two and half months . . .” he said. “Look at New Zealand, they have a slightly higher percentage success rate, they’ve traced 360 people.

New Zealand’s population is 4.8 million. England’s is 56 million. Last I checked, New Zealand had had a total of 1,570 cases compared to England’s 270,000. So yeah. We’re hardly behind them at all.

On the other hand, New Zealand has 26.7 million sheep.

Argar–and this, of course, is no more relevant than the sheep or the photo I dropped in at the top this post–is a former lobbyist for Serco, which runs the £108 million test and trace system. The system that only managed to contact a little over half the people in the same household as folks who’d tested positive. 

In the same household. They’d do a better job if they called the sheep.

Someone has leaked a memo from Public Health England in which they approached Serco about the test and trace contract. No bids were taken from other companies.

But it’s worth mentioning that Argar has also served in the Justice Department, and that Serco runs five private prisons and a prisoner escort service. The justice secretary, David Gauke, felt he needed to reassure the world at large that there wouldn’t be any conflict of interest.

So settle down, cynics of the world. It’s all in good hands.

My thanks to Bear Humphries and Annie Robinson for letting me know about the esteemed Mr. Argar.

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What’s the story on Russia’s vaccine? Skeptics point out that they’ve skipped phase III trials–the ones that look for side effects and measure its effectiveness, preferably in the widest possible sample of the population. The phase that generally takes months. 

So it’s not clear either how safe or how useful the vaccine will be. Russian officials say they hope its antibody response will last for as long as two years. Skeptics point out that no one knows much about how long Covid antibodies last or what protection they offer, and they worry that a partially effective vaccine could lead governments and people to abandon efforts to suppress the virus. 

Professor of immunology Danny Altmann said, “The collateral damage from release of any vaccine that was less than safe and effective would exacerbate our current problems insurmountably. . . . We are all in this together.”

Vladimir Putin’s daughter has taken a dose. Make of that what you will.

British educational terminology: the cheater’s guide

APROMPTreply asked what A-Levels and Sixth Form are, and Diane Clement wanted me to “explain all the education jargon in the U.K., especially this new stuff that sounds like American charter schools.”

Let’s start with Sixth Form, because it’s damn near manageable. The phrase is left over from an earlier way of organizing education—or at least of talking about how it’s organized. What I (being American) call grades and are called years here but were once called forms. The First Form was the first year of secondary school.

Lanhydrock House, Cornwall, rhododendron, azaleas

Irrelevant photo: rhododendrons and azaleas in bloom at Lanhydrock House

Students who stayed in school to study for A-Levels (those are tests, and if I live through this part of the explanation I’ll get to them) went into the Sixth Form, which took two years and was divided into the Upper and Lower Sixths, because it would all be too simple otherwise. To ward off the danger of simplicity even further, some schools called the Upper Sixth the Middle Sixth because students who were trying to get into Oxford or Cambridge would do a third year of Sixth Form and that was the Upper Sixth. But some schools called that the Seventh Form or the Third-Year Sixth.

And you thought English spelling was complicated. The urge to complexify runs deep in the culture.

But move along, folks, nothing to see here, as they say on British cop shows when there’s been an accident and parts of the language lie strewn and bleeding all over the road.

Now that you’ve memorized all that, you should know that it was swept away in 1990—except in public schools, by which, of course, I mean private schools. Do keep up (as they say here). Being private, public schools get to do whatever they want and—well, let’s put it this way: Have you looked at the uniforms those kids wear at the fanciest public schools? I know not many people feel sorry for the rich and ridiculous, but good lord. Somebody should intervene on their behalf. Anyway, the uniforms don’t lead me to think these schools set a tradition aside just because it no longer makes sense.

Or because it never did.

But back to state schools. They now count from Year 1 up to Year 13, which is simple enough, but lots of people still call the last two years the Sixth Form because they used to and who’s to stop them? And in case it all sounds worryingly simple, you should know that Year 1 starts after Reception, so Reception is really the first year except that it isn’t. As an American, I’m used to the idea that first grade comes after kindergarten, therefore this almost makes sense to me, except for that business about calling it Reception, which sounds like a desk near the entrance of a building.

Typically, Sixth Form students don’t have to wear uniforms, which is a big deal, since the poor creatures  have been stuffed into one uniform or another since they first entered the school door. But at least most state schools (emphasis on most) choose something that borders on sensible—sweat shirts, polo shirts, trousers that I’d call pants except that means underwear here so let’s call them trousers. I so want to believe the kids can choose their own underwear.

The littlest girls get stuck wearing dowdy little checkered dresses in some schools. On their behalf, I wish to register an objection–to the dowdiness (I know I said I was post fashion, but there is a limit) but far more so to making them wear dresses. I mean, what year is this, anyway? Are they supposed to sit at their desks and do samplers while the boys go out and play?

Some Sixth Form students go to Sixth Form colleges, which may offer a wider range of courses than schools that combine Sixth Form with the rest of secondary school. In rural Cornwall, this may mean either traveling long distances or rooming near the school during the week, which not everyone can manage, so access is divided by a combination of money and geography..

And in Scotland and Northern Ireland? Every bit of this is called something different. What I wrote applies only to England and Wales.

Isn’t this fun?

And now, undaunted, we stagger on to A-Levels, which are the high-stakes tests at the end of Sixth Form. AS-Levels are the first half of A-Levels. Admit it: You don’t really want details here. O-Levels were replaced by GCSEs, but both are high-stakes tests that come before Sixth Form. All of them can be spelled without the hyphen, although you might lose points for it on the exam.

I’ve been following the education system here long enough to offer the following authoritative report on all these tests: If the average scores go down one year, the press and politicians fret and agitate about why the younger generation is failing to learn and society is failing to stress the importance of education and the schools are failing to teach, and in general there’s hell to pay. If the average scores go up, the press (and some politicians, depending on whether their party’s in power or out) fret and agitate about the tests having been dumbed down. And there’s hell to pay.

How many ways to win can you spot here? I can’t find a single one.

One problem—here and elsewhere—with high-stakes testing is that schools are judged by their students’ test scores (and students’ futures, ever so incidentally, are determined by them) and so they teach frantically to the tests. The tendency, then, is for broad and imaginative teaching to go out the window. For flexibility to go out the window, along with the cultivation of creativity and independent thinking. Because tests can test only those things that can be standardized and measured and marked. They push the schools to become factories. I’d weep, but it’s not likely to make any of us laugh, so I’ll move along, leaving a trail of damp tissues for you to follow.

And it is in this unhygienic way that we come to the educational jargon Diane asked about, and for the most part I haven’t managed to be funny about this, so you’ve been warned. It’s also complicated enough to make Sixth Form look simple, so I’ll narrow it down as tightly as if we were clutching it to our chests and squeezing with it through the eye of an A-Level.

State schools have historically been the responsibility of local councils—or to translate that, of local governments. There’s always a but, though, isn’t there? The money comes from the national government, so you can guess where the power lies, and the last government became obsessed with a Swedish experiment with free schools—schools that weren’t under local government control and that, in theory, would be free to innovate. Parents would be free to choose their children’s school, schools would offer a range of educational approaches and compete for students, and that would force them to improve, and everything would get better and better in this best of all possible worlds.

A recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recommended that Sweden abandon its experiment because it’s led to a steep decline in educational standards, but never mind. What do they know?

So a good chunk of money has been pumped into free schools and academies. I’m not going to get into the difference between academies and free schools because, hey, I’m simplifying here, and it won’t be on the test anyway. Besides, I don’t understand it and, as folks say here, I can’t be arsed to look it up.

Academies and free schools have been started, variously, by concerned parents who have the free time (which usually also means the money) and expertise to do that, by teachers, by for-profit chains, by nonprofits, by religious groups, and inevitably by the occasional scamster. A few state schools have been forced, over parent and staff objections, to become academies on the theory that this will improve them. Under the new government, we can expect more schools to go down that road. The new government just loves free schools and academies.

Unlike state schools, free schools and academies don’t have to worry about responding to a region’s needs. They can and often do open where there are already enough places, meaning government money goes to set up schools where they’re not needed. Also unlike state schools, they don’t have to hire qualified teachers. They don’t have to pay teachers the going rate, because they’re starting from scratch and their teachers have no union. They are, in theory, free of political interference, but they seem to be directly, and heavily, beholden to the central government rather than to the local one, so all this diversification may (emphasis on may; I’ve read about this but didn’t save the articles and I’m not a good researcher, so I can’t find any sources on it right now, which means I’m working from memory and impressions) be centralizing the control of education rather than loosening it.

One argument for these schools is that they’ll provide an alternative to failing schools. I read that so often that a person could begin to think all state schools are failing. They’re not; some have serious problems and others are doing well. From what I’ve read, the academic record of the new schools is mixed. Some do better than the comparable state schools and some do worse. Some aren’t well planned and close without warning, leaving the parents scrambling to find their children other ways to finish out the academic year. Some are in areas where they’re not needed. Opponents argue that they take up a disproportionate amount of the education budget, starving the state schools of funds. Proponents argue that they encourage diversification, excellence, and choice. Do I sound biased? I am, especially about the way the deck’s been stacked against the state schools.

So, to return to Diane’s question, they’re somewhat like the charter school movement in the U.S., but with the added, and I think toxic, element that state schools can, in some situations, be forced to become academies even if they and the parents involved don’t want to.