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27 june 2015, back to school

As the eurozone faces its very sternest test and the british death toll in tunisia rises by the hour, I go back to how these things come about and one inescapable but true cliche, that there is little not helped, or even solved, by education. I made a small contribution today, speaking at a hungarian weekend school that has sprung up in manchester. Critical to it, as all schools, is the quality of teachers. It is too bad that rigorous performance management comes late to many school systems, although also understandable given that performance in this context is hellishly difficult to measure. Some kids of course, not least through socio-demographics, should be expected to do better. Teacher value-add comes most where they are not, so straightforward like-for-like comparisons with other areas are not right, though like-for-like of the same areas over time might be. Experience also has a value. An interesting point that emerges from the research is that most schools have a full spectrum of good and bad teachers, which is strange. Better systems, places or heads might be expected to bring forward the best; lesser ones tolerate the worst. Better pupils though are assigned to better teachers. This is highly pertinent for me as my second-born makes the transition into secondary school and, unusually, to a state school that has streams. He worked extremely hard to get in the top steam, where, research would suggest, the better teachers are deployed; evidence from my first son (same school, same stream) suggests so. On the other hand, getting the best teachers to work with the worst pupils would likely create the maximum value for society, though at the cost of the highest-performers doing less well. Cause and effect though, as ever, might be an inverse relationship here. We can of course be utopian and just wish that all teachers were excellent, or at least nudge things towards that: better pay for teachers would help, as would rather more ruthlessly rooting out and moving on the poorer ones. Someone was perhaps right with the "education, education, education" mantra.