The Tail by Paul Marshall

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The Tail by Paul Marshall

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 1.5/5
Reviewer: Margaret Young
Reviewed by Margaret Young
Summary: A disconcerting view of new government's educational agenda in which school children become a commodity to which value can be added in the production ( education) stage, but with no regard for the health and well being of this commodity beyond its future economic output.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 224 Date: February 2013
Publisher: Profile Books
ISBN: 978-1781251676

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The Tail is edited by Paul Marshall. It is a collection of essays by different writers who all share a common vision. The transition from one writer to another is not noticeable. I have never read a book with so many authors before which had no differences in opinion. This literally has 19 voices which speak as one, each one reiterating a very strong political and economic vision. The uniformity does make for easier reading. If the author of each chapter were not listed, I would assume I was reading the opinion of only one person. But it also displays an extreme lack of balance and at times becomes very tedious as it reads likes a monologue extolling the virtues of a political manifesto. In all honesty, I would have really preferred this with one author and perhaps 100 pages or less, as I felt that I was just reading the same opinion over and over again, as if enough repetition would wear the audience down.

The Tail is term used to refer to the bottom 20% of England's students. These are the children who will leave school lacking basic skills in literacy and numeracy, without any good GCSE's and with very few employment prospects. The book spends a fair amount of time using statistics and graphs to convince that this is bad for the economy. I liked the fact that this book does draw attention to this issue. The book compares UK achievement with other developed countries and I was surprised to learn we rank far below the USA in literacy, with roughly twice as many children failing to achieve basic standards of education in the UK as in other well developed countries. I agree with the authors wholeheartedly that this can not be allowed to continue, and that the effects on the economy are serious as well. I also agree with the author on SEN inflation, but I won't go as far as the author has to blame many parents for intentionally disabling their children to get a DLA check.

I do agree with him on the over use of medication though, and the overuse of labels to justify low achievement. I especially liked that the authors called the safety of these medications into questions, but was appalled that they wanted teachers to be consulted as to whether a child should be given medication. This is a strong infringement on parental rights in my opinion. I do not feel that teachers are trained or qualified to order medication. I do believe he feels the teachers would order less medications, but this has not been the case where I live. I have seen many teachers push parents to medicate as it is - I can't imagine giving them to power to force the issue. The idea that a parent's right to decide on medical treatment should be removed without just cause ins incomprehensible to me.

I do agree with the authors on some points, but I do not agree at all with the proposals of this book to correct it. In all fairness I will point out that I am a home educating mother, with very strong views on the rights of children and the importance of family, as well as the freedom of parents to raise their children according to their own beliefs so long as the children are happy, well cared for and educated. While education is one of the most important things in life to me, I also feel that a child's physical and mental well being have value as well, and I do want my children, and all children, to have some joy in their childhood. This book went against everything I believe in. I am also a former youth worker with far more experience of children's illiteracy than I would like. I have seen far too many children grow up unable to read, and have seen what works and what does not in helping these children. These experiences have also given me very strong opinions of a programme that I believe would cause more harm than good. This book might perfectly suit a politician arguing for what they see as a better fiscal plan, but to a mother, it is abhorrent.

The editor of this book is a former hedge fund manager and philanthropist. I believe that he does honestly mean well - but that his opinion of what is better might not match the reality. As a member of the working classes, with a great deal of experience in this area, I can't help but bristle at an outsider claiming he knows what is best for our children, without any evidence of his opinions. I'm quite happy for an expert who has spent time with children learning from them to offer comments, but I very much feel that this man's expertise is in financial commodities - not child development. There is never once in this book that I detected any concern for the happiness of children, but it is sneered at on one occasion. He proposes that we manage schools like hedge funds, with no regard whatsoever for the happiness or emotional well being of children. They are seen simply as economic producers which we can add value to in the education process very much as we could add value to a commercial product in the production line. This book suggests a culture of bonuses, much as we saw for the hedge fund managers, based on GCSE and test performance, and sacking 10% of our current teachers.

There are suggestions that government should be one centralised bureaucracy responsible for the health well being and education of our young children. Time and time again we get references to parents being unwilling or unable to make the best decisions for their children - the solution is to let the government do it for them. The rights of children and the family appear non existent, but one of the authors says we must resist the idea of schools running 16 hours a day and on weekends as well (I would hope so - do they intend to completely obliterate the family unit?) but he still sees schools as the principle source of moral and practical authority. I would disagree most strongly. The family should be the principle source of moral authority in a child's life.

One of the factors which I felt did make this book much less pleasant to read was the over use of charts and statistics. There seems to be a concerted attempt to bowl the reader over with statistics, but these statistics are irrelevant without further data. Any good scientist knows that correlation does not always equal causation and children are living, feeling beings, not so easily reduced to graphs and charts as a financial commodity. Again, there is no attempt whatsoever at balance; studies and statistics which would counter the mantra of this book are never displayed. Throughout the book, I felt as if I were sitting through a sales meeting in which someone was trying to pitch a product to me, and these charts were simply another sales prop.

I was extremely distressed by most of the solutions offered by this book. I deeply resented calls for more government intrusion into the private lives of families. I also disliked the idea of government intervention at earlier and earlier ages. I desperately wish programmes were in place to help those who truly need help - but I do not feel that trying to force education at an earlier age is beneficial , and in fact, hard science supports my opinion. Those countries that out rank us in reading scores consistently start reading instruction later, rather than earlier. The concept of reading readiness is never mentioned here. I also noted that Canada is praised for its educational system's success - but no mention is made of the fact that Canada's system is a polar opposite of what this book proposes. A reader with no prior knowledge of the Canadian school systems would be left with a very inaccurate impression it. Canada has one of the most enlightened - and successful education systems in the world. If only the authors had taken the time to learn what makes them so successful, this would have been a different book.

Further calls for children to spend more hours in school means they have less time for play - a critical component in child development, and less time to spend with their families. Again - I can't help but feel that the overall idea is to break the influence of the family. I believe children have a right to play, to free time and even to read - on their own. Forcing young children to put in an 8 hour day is inhumane to me. By the time they travel to and from school, and complete homework - what time is left for personal development and growth, for play or creativity? It's easy to discount play, but anyone truly versed in child development is well aware of its importance in creativity, intelligence and mental health.

Nor is there any evidence that more hours in school produces the desired results. Again - the countries with later school starting ages and reduced school hours consistently out perform us - but these facts are never mentioned. If the reader has not done quite a lot of research into these facts though, it would be easy to come away from this book with very inaccurate opinions of these practices. At one time, American schools taught almost all children basic literacy and numeracy in only a few years, with shorter school days and a shorter school year. Steiner schools still exceed the educational attainment of mainstream schooling without sacrificing the child's emotional and physical development as well. Current practices are not working. We do not need more of the same bad medicine. Study after study has shown us you can teach basic literacy to a child in only a matter of months with one on one tuition. This would be far less costly than the proposed bonus culture and could easily be done now using the pupil premium as it was meant to be used. Even better, schools could follow the Montessori tradition and allow teaching to form a strong basis for learning as well. Older children could cement their skills through teaching the youngest. I can see no evidence in this book that leads me to believe any research was done as to the effectiveness of the theories they wish to enforce.

Finally, while I am not a Labour supporter and never have been, I did grow very tired of the constant jabs at Labour. I have been at political AGM's in the past, and this book read more like a combination of political manifesto and a post AGM social session's jabs at the opposing party than a work on education. No chance was ever missed to throw mud at the Labour party - making this book very party political. I found this book more about blame than solutions. The authors blame the Labour party, blame the parents and blame the teachers, but never do they offer a well researched solution.

Despite my complete rejection of everything ths book stands for, I will still recommend borrowing. It is not a pleasant read. It is not even a well organised book. But the fact that it has been endorsed by certain policy makers means it should be read. Prior to reading this, I sincerely believed allowing big business to run some schools might be beneficial to students. After reading this I would never dream of encouraging such an idea. In attempting to convince me why schools should be run as a business, the authors have given me far more convincing reasons to oppose this than their worst critic could ever dream of.

You might also find the following books useful:

Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain by George Monbiot
Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

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