Relevance

The idea that what is taught in history lessons should be relevant to pupils’ lives is a longstanding one. It has been used to advocate teaching the history of the twentieth century, social history, and more of what is rather clumsily called ‘women’s history,’ or Black history, or LGBT+ history. One of the great criticisms of the sort of history which is disparaged as ‘kings & battles’ is that it lacks this quality of ‘relevance’: most history teachers have seen much of what we do dismissed as exclusionary stories about ‘dead white males.’

I do agree that part of our responsibility as history teachers is to do our bit in explaining to the next generation how our country, and our world, got to be the way it is. Is that what’s meant by ‘relevance’? If so, then yes, I’m all for it. There are, I think, lots of things which our children should leave our schools knowing, and just because we can’t expect to agree on just what those things are doesn’t mean that we just throw our hands up and say ‘it’s impossible to decide, so forget it.’ This, for what it’s worth, is Niall Ferguson’s version. (I enjoyed the whole thing, but his list of twenty significant historical subjects takes just over a minute to listen to.) This stuff is relevant, because an understanding of it is essential to an understanding of the modern world.

But when history teachers are urged to make our subject relevant, this isn’t usually what’s meant.

So what’s wrong with social history? What’s wrong with women’s history, or Black history, or LGBT+ history?

*Deep breath.*

Well.

I’m not wholly convinced that I understand just what their advocates would like to happen in my classroom.

Do they mean that pupils should learn about Abbess Hilda of Whitby, Queen Elizabeth I or Emily Wilding Davison? Okay, that shouldn’t be too difficult.

Should a course on Roman Britain include a reference to those black soldiers who were stationed on Hadrian’s Wall? Should a course on the Victorians refer to Mary Seacole? Should pupils who study the First World War know who Walter Tull was? No problem.

When we talk about mediaeval kingship, should we talk about the allegedly homosexual behaviour of William Rufus & Edward II? When we talk about twentieth-century espionage should we talk about Alan Turing & Guy Burgess? Quite happy with that.

Is it important that, whenever pupils encounter an historical era, they learn about what life was like for ordinary people? Sure.

When we do that, should I use concepts like ‘patriarchy’ and ‘kyriarchy’ to explain how & why a majority of people have been marginalised by their oppressors?

(See, I know all the terminology…)

Actually yes, at least to some extent. I think that an exploration of the legal inequalities of mediaeval society is an essential part of studying that period. I think pupils should learn about slavery, and colonialism; and to understand slavery and colonialism I think it’s essential that they understand the attitudes of those who were part of those historical phenomena, and the power imbalances that maintained them. Any course on the campaign for women’s suffrage which does not look at the way that social mores, and the law, worked against the interests of women as a group, is an unsatisfactory survey. (A good survey would of course cover how different women were affected by these forces in different ways.)

I expect they’d agree with me that a history curriculum in which (say) women appear, briefly, experience discrimination, and then disappear, would be unsatisfactory. But a history curriculum in which (say) gay people appear, briefly, experience discrimination, save the world anyway, and then disappear, doesn’t seem to me to be much better. I’m afraid I don’t trust this sort of thing: stories which are designed to advance an ideological case make for very bad history.

(It’s probably counter-productive in the long run anyway.)

But would this sort of thing be more ‘relevant’ anyway?

I don’t think so. Do twenty-first century teenage girls find that they can somehow relate to an early mediaeval nun, while the life of an early mediaeval monk is so alien as to be utterly irrelevant? Do black boys really identify with black junior officers on the Western Front while the experiences of white junior officers are just too far from their own lives as to make any attempt to learn about them futile?

Well, in that case I really do wonder if there’s any point in school history. It may be that the twenty-first century girl prefers learning about abbesses to learning about abbots, but she really shouldn’t be encouraged to kid herself that she somehow understands women who lived hundreds of years ago just because she’s female. I see the appeal of Tull’s story, especially for a young black boy, but if he really thinks he has some special insight into Tull’s life because of their shared ethnicity … well, he’s wrong, and we shouldn’t encourage him to think that he’s right.

Look, I know I’m the most privileged person on the internet. I understand that there is a school of thought that says that yes, people – children especially – need to feel like people in the past were somehow ‘like them’ to be able to engage with their stories. I can’t feel it myself, but then – of course – I wouldn’t. As it happens I think the stories of Tull and Christina of Markyate (to pick one of many) are fascinating and deserve a place on the curriculum, and that Tull’s blackness and Christina’s femaleness are part of what makes them remarkable.

But that doesn’t make them relevant in any meaningful sense. Indeed, the more we persuade ourselves that they are relevant, the more wrong we are, and an attempt to understand what it was like to be a mediaeval nun, or an officer of the Great War, which starts on the basis of shared gender or ethnicity, is unlikely to be historically fruitful.

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Teachers & the Right

Twenty years ago, I played for a schoolboy football team.

On the Saturday morning after the General Election result we gathered for training, and I was commiserated with by the others. To begin with I didn’t quite understand why, and said so, at which point I was informed that clearly I must be feeling a bit sore after the Conservatives had been reduced to 165 seats in the House of Commons.

Now I’d never discussed party politics with the lads I played football with. So I set them straight: had I been old enough, I’d have voted Labour. They smirked. Obviously I was a Tory: I was the only privately-educated member of the team.

If you’d asked these boys about tax, or about criminal justice, or about international aid, you’d have got answers which would belong firmly on the right of the political spectrum. But it would never have occurred to them to have voted Conservative. The Tories were the posh gits’ party. Everyone knew that.

This was in a marginal constituency in the south midlands, which (like a lot of places, I suppose) had a Conservative MP before 1997 and a Labour MP thereafter. Evidently quite a lot of its inhabitants did vote Tory. And while my (fictitious) Conservative allegiance was assumed, I’d never been given a hard time about it. I wasn’t disliked for being a Tory. It was just the way of the world. Posh people voted Conservative. Others didn’t.

Then I started teaching.

My first online venue for reading teachers’ views was the Times Educational Supplement’s forums. There, on those forums, something not altogether dissimilar was going on. Teachers were – then as now – vocally Labour-supporting.

When lamenting indiscipline in lessons, and the injunctions to understand rather than to condemn the misbehaviour, or the proliferation of pointless bureaucracy, or the decline in academic standards, there was a consistent embrace of Tory principles by teachers who were otherwise quite keen to denounce the wickedness of Conservatism or Conservatives.

Robert Conquest famously said that ‘everyone is right-wing about what he knows best.’ I’m not wholly convinced by this. The world of education does have two very different ‘rights.’ There’s the free-market right, the right of uncapped university tuition fees, of free schools, or of vouchers, but certainly of competition and parental choice. But there’s also the traditionalist right, the right of ‘classical’ educations and grammar schools, of uniforms and gowns and pupils sitting in serried ranks learning from a sage on the stage. These aren’t completely incompatible with each other, but there are some pretty serious tensions, and very different priorities, and I wonder which of them is the kind of ‘right-wing’ to which those who know about education might be expected to adhere.

Still, I think quite a lot of teachers are more right-wing than they think they are.

Collective Punishment

There’s an image doing the rounds on Twitter, wherein a girl, asked about “things my teacher can do better,” replies with “collective punishment.”

“It’s not fair,” she says, “on the many people who did nothing wrong.”

I get it. I do. I understand the unfairness; I also understand that for a certain type of pupil, the meek and the geek, it can be particularly difficult. Maybe they didn’t even know that the event occasioning the punishment happened; or maybe they did, and feel pressure from the more dominant members of a class to keep quiet, whether or not that pressure is articulated.

And yet I’m not convinced.

Yes, I know, I’m a monster, unfit to be responsible for the education of the young.

But is this always and everywhere the case? Really?

Let me give you a case study. It happens to be a true story of something which happened earlier this term.

Imagine a class of fourteen-year-old boys. They’re in a Chemistry lesson, doing a ‘practical.’ And one of them, in direct defiance of an explicit instruction, pours water over a chemical compound, thereby causing a minor incident.

No, the school did not blow up. There was a fizz and a stench, a little disorder and a number of angry Chemistry teachers and laboratory technicians.

And no, none of this is the teacher’s fault. I know that’s what you’re thinking, but you’re wrong, because even if you think that there’s no way what you just read could possibly be true, I didn’t ask you to believe that I’m telling you the truth. I just asked you to imagine. So imagine.

Now. I want you also to imagine that this happened on one of those long science-lab benches, with a third of the class gathered around the incident. One boy knows who committed the offence, because he did it. Several others know who committed the offence, because they witnessed it.

Still with me? Good.

Right, a little more imagination is required. I want you to imagine that the Chemistry teacher then asked the boys around that table who was responsible for the incident, and that all of them shrugged and indicated that they did not know.

Do you believe them?

Nor do I.

Look – in the real world you’ve won on this one. I know. As it happened, the Chemistry teacher kept those boys back at break and detained them for some time while they refused to identify the malefactor. As the boys’ tutor, I confined them to the form room at lunchtime while they persisted in their observation of omerta.

I’ll tell you what I told them, which is that in being so unreasonable I was actually giving them the opportunity to be the perverted heroes they clearly considered themselves to be, standing by their preposterous little Code of the Schoolyard in not ‘grassing’: for this to be morally praiseworthy, I said, they did actually have to suffer somewhat for their principles.

No, I don’t think they were persuaded either.

And sure enough, nor were their parents. Or at least nor was one mother, who angrily telephoned me that afternoon, complaining that her son had been punished for something he hadn’t done. I don’t think she liked it when I told her that actually he had at the very least concealed the identity of a boy who had been at the very least grossly negligent in what must be one of the most dangerous parts of the school. Fortunately I have a terrific Head of Year to support me, though (as far as I’m aware) it never got that far: I conceded on the telephone to her that while I did not consider this punishment to be wrong, I was well aware that this is no longer the conventional wisdom, and that consequently I would not be extending this period of collective punishment.

This means that the offender has essentially got away with it. He had a few minutes in a classroom instead of the full school detention which his conduct would, if uncovered, have incurred.

You disapprove of me, I can tell. But what’s your answer here?

It’s better that a hundred guilty men go free than that an innocent man is unjustly punished?

Well, you say that. But if you’re going to rely on comparisons with criminal justice then be careful. I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know if, had this behaviour constituted a criminal offence, the entire group would been liable to prosecution under the principle of ‘joint enterprise’. I’ll bet, though, that there would be some principle which would enable some punishment: if a group of people are known to have committed a crime, and are covering up for each other, the law does not shrug and allow them all to escape punishment.

Ah, but it’s unfair on those who didn’t do it for them to be punished.

Is it?

They know who did it. They’re covering up for him. Are they scared of the consequences of informing on their peers? Maybe, but they can do it anonymously, and in this the electronic age that has never been easier.

Let’s not kid ourselves. This incident isn’t one of those issues which – however reasonable the rules and their justification may seem to us – a pupil can tell himself is a piffling school rule which has no moral or logical backing. I’m not asking a pupil to reveal the identity of the owner of a packet of cigarettes, or of the artist who drew an unflattering picture of me on my whiteboard, or of the idler who bunked off a cross-country run. Mucking around with chemicals is a quite different matter. The pupil who refuses to disclose his knowledge of it is doing something dangerous as well as morally wrong, and the more we as teachers accept such behaviour as normal – which, like it or not, is what we’re doing when we see it happening and do not intervene to punish those who do it – the worse it’ll get.

So sure. Congratulate yourself on being better than the dinosaurs who impose collective punishment. But I don’t think you’re as morally superior as you think you are.

Good Innovation

Education is particularly vulnerable, I think, to snake oil. However short schools may be of funds, this is a multi-million-pound sector. State provision of primary and secondary education may be free at the point of delivery, but private tutoring isn’t, and nor are pre-school and tertiary education. At least a very significant minority of people have therefore paid at least something for their children’s education, or for their own.

Outside of this, there are innumerable companies selling allegedly educational products.

Now where you get a market, you get charlatans. And a customer – especially one buying for his children – must be aware of this.

When I say this to classes, they take a sharp intake of breath, and I get accused of being some kind of soixante-huitard socialist. Quite the reverse, I tell them. For a free market to work, the consumer must be sceptical and discriminating. So yes, of course I’ll tell my children that advertisements are not to be trusted, and that products can disappoint them in all sorts of ways. That’s not being anti-market: it’s being profoundly pro-market. If free markets really are just a way for the businessman to rinse the general public then perhaps we really should embrace full-blooded socialism … but do you really think that your local curry-house proprietor is ripping you off every week? Do you think the state would do a better job? C’mon. Of course you don’t. Markets are essential.

In the Friedmans’ Free to Choose the authors explain that there are four ways of spending money:

You spend your own money on yourself;

You spend someone else’s money on yourself;

You spend your own money on someone else;

You spend someone else’s money on someone else.

With the first being the most efficient, and the fourth the least.

Now I’m not on Team Anarcho-Capitalist. I’ll concede that there’s a place for expense accounts and for gifts. And I accept that sometimes the state must spend our money. No one really thinks that roads or armed services should be privatised, do they? Not outside of thought experiments.

And clearly education can thrive in a free market: the Head Masters’ Conference will smugly remind you, just as they’ll remind you that the right to buy their products is a human right. But there are some obvious problems with the operation of a pure free market in education. And this isn’t just about the inequities that can arise: a supporter of free markets must appreciate that information is particularly asymmetrical when it comes to buying education. How do you know if your children’s school was the right investment decision? And when? Good luck answering that one.

Still. We have a real problem in the education market. There is far too much Category Four spending going on. People are spending other people’s money (be it the taxpayer or the feepayer) on other people (our pupils). And so, just as the Friedmans predicted, some dreadful decisions are being made.

Consultants, of course, of all kinds. Interactive Whiteboards. Virtual Learning Environments. Tablets. The latest wheeze to come to my school has been companies flogging software which purports to identify pupils at risk of mental health difficulties on the basis of their answers to questions like ‘imagine you’re in a space – do you want people in your space?’ Thousands of pounds, that one costs. Extraordinary.

All accompanied with the usual hard sell and with no hard evidence. Do you think mental health is important? The school which isn’t moving forward is moving backward. This is twenty-first century learning, preparing pupils for jobs which haven’t yet been invented.

Are decision-makers in schools uniquely gullible? I doubt it. Is it because schools aren’t in a proper free market, but are protected from going bust? Maybe, though that doesn’t apply to independent schools, which have been enthusiastic adopters of some of the costliest of these innovations.

I’m inclined, I’m afraid, to attribute quite a lot of the preposterous new initiatives under which we mere grunts in the classroom groan to the incentive structures in place in too many schools. Our headmaster, in his wisdom, has deemed that it is not enough for each year group to have a head of year: each must also have a deputy head of year.

Heads of Year tend to like this. They can pass off all the tedious jobs which they don’t want to do. Deputy Heads of Year tend to like it too: they’ve got a promotion and, therefore, a headstart when it comes to preparing their own applications to become real pastoral ‘leaders’.

I don’t like it. The new deputy heads of year all know that when they come to be appraised, or apply for another promotion, they will be asked about their record. Now were I a Head Master, I’d ask the question about initiatives, and I would appoint on the spot the candidate who said ‘you know what, Head Master? I haven’t introduced any initiatives, because proper pastoral care isn’t about innovation: it’s about getting to know the pupils, pre-empting any problems that can be pre-empted and handling those that can’t, and introducing an initiative is no substitute for spending that time developing relationships with the pupils you teach.’

But I’m not a Head Master, and I’m not going to be one, and unfortunately they tend, outrageously, to disagree with me.

Now, though, we have two pastoral leaders, doing one job. They have time on their hands to prepare innovations. And it’s we ordinary tutors who must carry it out. This isn’t just gimmickry like pupil self-assessment, ‘mindfulness’ and ‘metacognition,’ by the way: my deputy head of year’s most recent initiative was establishing a lunchtime activity of…

…football. In the sports hall. Tutors to supervise.

This is what happens when innovation is fetishised. Someone really thinks that what a bunch of thirteen-year-old boys need is for someone to formally organise a lunchtime game of football.

Anyway. I’m a thousand words in and I still haven’t got to my point.

Except to say that most of the time innovations make things worse, but persist because they suit someone’s curriculum vitae.

Well – this weekend I encountered a different type of innovation, and it pleased me.

The innovation concerned cricket.

Our lower-ranked (B & C) teams played a different type of match. Normally they’d play a thirty-over game: one side bats for thirty overs, then the other side does likewise, and whoever scores most runs wins.

The new style game was different. Instead, Team X would bat for fifteen overs. Then Team Y would bat for fifteen overs. Then Team X again, and then Team Y again. The batting order would be reversed for each team’s second innings.

This, I thought, as our game concluded, was a very good example of how innovation should happen.

Firstly, a problem was identified.

Now I love cricket. But it can be a dog of a game if you’re significantly worse than those around you. A player who’s not all that good goes out to bat, gets himself out, and doesn’t get to bat again. He might well not get to bowl either. He may well spend his time in the field at fine leg where he can’t mess up too badly. This phenomenon is particularly marked when teenage captains are given too much responsibility: most of the boys in a sports team will have worked out what they consider to be the hierarchy of ability in their own minds, they will agree with each other, and they will be brutal to those at the bottom of the pecking order. The result, too often, is that players don’t have much fun, and drift away from the game.

Even without this, there’s a bit of a design flaw in cricket. If one side is significantly better than the other, but the worse side bats first, the game can be over rather quickly, and only a few players will have got to bowl or bat. Coaches will often try to avoid such scenarios, but you don’t always know if one side is going to outclass the other, and it’s generally not a good idea to tell a team before a game that the opposition will be hopeless. I have been involved in cricket matches where one side gets bowled out for thirtysomething runs in a few overs, the other side chases it down easily, and no one gets much out of it.

In response to the problem, an innovation which was designed to mitigate the problems was introduced. With this new format a side which bowls out the opposition cheaply doesn’t just knock off the runs and go home: they get to bat for longer, so individuals have more involvement. The inferior side does then get another crack at batting: yes, they might get bowled out again, but at least they’ll have had a bit more of a game, and the superior side will be able, in the second innings, knowing what they’re up against, to give a bowl to players who wouldn’t normally get one. No one can guarantee that every player will get a bat without turning the game into a taking-turns exercise of the type that people who want to play competitive sports don’t want to play. But at least the new format does away with the phenomenon of the player who gets stuck batting at eleven (or twelve, if – as my school does – you always pick twelve players to ‘maximise participation’) and doesn’t move from that position all season.

It might stay; it might not. It might be extended; it might not. We’ll see. But it’s not being made a big fuss of. There have been no whole-staff meetings in which we’ve been told that This Is The Future, and We Are All Onside With This, as has happened with other innovations at my place of employment. Quietly, someone is making a carefully-planned amendment to how we do things in order to see if it’ll make things better.

This is how innovation should be.

Empathy, Whitby & War

On Twitter, Ben Newmark (@bennewmark, as I’m sure anyone reading this knows) just asked:

Is imagining yourself as a person in the past a useful aim of history lessons in schools?

I wanted to reply, but I had too much to say. Here’s what I think.

Obviously the whole genre of ‘imagine you’re Anne Frank / a soldier of the Great War / a mediaeval peasant’ questions has given rise to some dismal history lessons, and I’m completely on Team This Is A Waste Of Time At Best, And Actively Damaging At Worst.

But I do think the exercise can be valuable.

I’ll give you a couple of examples.

I remember, as an undergraduate, studying the age of Bede, and reading somewhere – and I can’t remember where, which irritates me, but I suppose it doesn’t matter – that there is a great deal of discussion about what was really going on at the Synod of Whitby. Were the advocates of adopting the Roman rather than the Irish dating of Easter motivated by political expediency, or cultural identity, or was there some other reason for people to support one side or the other. And the historian (it so irks me that I’ve forgotten the name) then wrote that while all these things may have mattered, they also missed a very big point, which is that the participants really did care about getting the dating of Easter right.

This was, for me, a salutary lesson which I’ve tried to remember, and to pass on to the pupils I teach. Just because the occupant of a twenty-first century classroom finds it hard to believe that people found something important doesn’t mean that they didn’t.

For me, ‘Imagine you’re an Irish cleric at the Synod of Whitby. What are your feelings?’ is not a terrible question. Pupils will get the answer wrong. They will implicitly assume that what motivates them is what motivated the people they’re trying to empathise with. If the teacher doesn’t correct them, then I agree that this is unhelpful. But a teacher who explains that actually no, that’s not what these people believed, and this is why, is doing an important job.

It’s going to get more controversial.

This is why I don’t think that ‘who had the best claim to the throne in 1066?’ is a terrible question either. Of course what the pupil in the modern classroom thinks will be a long way from the actual considerations of the mid-eleventh century. But I think it can be very helpful to say ‘Well yes, today we would think of Edgar as having the ‘best’ claim. This wasn’t the case in 1066, and here’s why not. It wasn’t really the case in 1199 either, though perhaps the murkiness of the rules of succession contributed to King John killing his nephew Arthur who, according to the strict application of male-preference primogeniture, had a better claim to the throne. But it was the case by 1377, by which time no one thinks that Richard II isn’t the rightful king despite being younger than Arthur and Edgar. Why? What changed?’

Now maybe that’s a discussion to have when considering 1377, not 1066. But perhaps considering the issue in 1066, and in 1199, and then again in 1377, is no bad thing.

I’m going to go even further.

Sometimes trying to put yourself in an historical figure’s shoes is worth doing to understand why things happen the way they do.

Niall Ferguson, in The Pity of War, writes about how in the last year of the First World War the British take a decision to try to take German prisoners and to treat them well. Why does this make a difference?

At that point I ask a class to imagine that they are a soldier. They are to prioritise the following outcomes:

Your country wins the war, you survive;

Your country wins the war, you die;

Your country loses the war, you survive

Your country loses the war, you die.

Now it might not quite be an iron law of military history, but I’d be so bold as to say that it’s as close as history gets to one, to say the following. In war, everyone can agree that Outcome One is the best, and Outcome Four the worst. But for individual soldiers, Outcome Three is preferable to Outcome Two, whereas for rulers and military leaders Outcome Two is preferable to Outcome Three.

Now I could, as they say, just tell ’em. And sometimes I do just tell ’em. But this is one of those areas where I think it’s fair to say that the dilemma, such as it is, is – well, I don’t want to say universal. But nearly universal.

And I think it helps young historians to think about this when they think about how and why military training, and social forces, act the way they do. The USSR gave its soldiers a grim (and very ‘materialist’ in the Marxist sense) choice: advance and risk dying, or don’t and guarantee it because you’ll be shot by your own officers. Pals’ Battalions were a rather different way of getting men to set aside their own interest and prioritise Outcome Two over Outcome Three. Social stigmas could help too: what is The Battle of Maldon but an Anglo-Saxon way of telling young men that there could be no greater honour than to prefer Outcome Two to Outcome Three? Or those Spartan mothers telling their sons to return with their shields or not at all?

Sometimes people in the past had very different outlooks to us. Sometimes they didn’t. And I think carefully exploring that in the classroom is, as Sellar & Yeatman said, A Good Thing.

Study Leave

Soon my Fifth Form and Lower Sixth pupils will be going on study leave.

I am amazed that study leave still exists. Especially in the private sector. I do occasionally hear of parental complaints about study leave, but reading between the lines of the only ‘official’ (and perhaps pre-emptive) response to these complaints it seems that they are centred around the principle that it is rather cheeky for a school to charge a full term’s tuition fees when the consumer is sent home to revise before even half of that term is completed.

It’s easy for me to say, because I’m not paying the fees, but were I one of these parents the money wouldn’t be what animated me. (I suppose I’d expect that my status as a paying customer would lead my children’s school to take me more seriously though.) I’d be sceptical about the idea that sending teenagers home to work independently on their revision would result in them using their time more wisely than would be the case were they still under their teachers’ supervision.

But this isn’t what they think.

(Well. Discuss. It may well be that actually the majority do think this, but that they aren’t prepared to make a fuss about it, and so the noisy minority prevails. It’s possible. This seems to be what happened with smoking in public houses. By the time it was formally banned smokers were a minority even of pub-goers. Yet the market had not responded. Did the smokers care more about smoking than the non-smokers cared about their dry-cleaning bills? Or was grumbling about smoking socially unacceptable, in the way that lighting up in a restaurant would now be considered socially unacceptable? I don’t know. But that’s my best guess.)

So to be more precise, perhaps it would be better to say that independent schools are clearly not under irresistible pressure to scrap the institution of study leave: were they, more would have done so.As a mere teacher I suppose I also have a skewed view of this. I do not receive missives of complaint about my employer’s policy on study leave. I do, though, and it’s starting already, notice increasing numbers of pupils who will soon be sitting public examinations effectively granting themselves early study leave. The number of pupils who are appearing on registers as absent through illness is always entertainingly high in the last period of study leave.

Why do parents connive in it?

Presumably some of the illness is designed to fool parents.

Some of it may, indeed, violate Richard Feynman’s famous injunction. “You must not fool yourself,” he warned, “and you are the easiest person to fool.” It occurs to me that there are plenty of pupils who have successfully kidded themselves that they really will work more effectively at home, and if they have to feign illness to their parents, well, they’ve had the better part of a decade’s practice at that particular trick.

But much of it is pure cynicism. A pupil tells a parent that he will work better at home than at school. He’ll craft a plausible patter. It’s an hour on the bus each way, plus break and lunch times, so I’ll have more working time here; revision lessons are too hard/easy, or they focus on things I haven’t started revising yet, but I worked out my own revision timetable just like I was told, and you’ve seen it, haven’t you? No point in me going in for lessons I won’t get / things I already know really well. And Mr Grumpy isn’t even in school today, he’s on the First Form Religious Studies trip. Or a course. Or paternity leave. Or he’s off sick. And I also have a free – I mean a study period – and one of my other lessons is Spanish and I know I’m dropping that anyway and the exam isn’t until after half-term.And the parent believes him.

You know what I did on study leave?

I did some studying. But not, truth be told, a great deal. I spent more time reading.

Why? Because there was no internet. There were computer games, but they were limited, and a normal teenager would get bored by his collection within an hour. (I think my family bought its first console when I was around ten. It had a football game and I remember drawing up complicated World Cup tournaments. But I never finished a tournament: the game just couldn’t hold my interest for long enough.)

So it’s not that I was some sort of model student. I wasn’t. I didn’t see the point of the sciences, and I didn’t revise them much. I thought I knew everything anyone could possibly know about history, and everyone knows you can’t revise for English exams.*

But I was in the house all by myself. Once done with schoolwork, the only thing to do was make a cup of tea, have a biscuit … and read. You couldn’t telephone people for long: the bill would be astronomical. There was no text messaging. (Those of us who did Politics knew what a ‘pager’ was, because New Labour made them notorious, but none of us had ever actually seen one, never mind possess one.)

At the end of my study leave I’d done a lot of reading. It might not have been as effective a form of revision as actually doing Physics past papers, but it was certainly better than what the twenty-first century learner is doing.

The twenty-first century learner can play Call of Duty, or Fifa, or whatever the most popular game de nos jours is, all day. Because computer games are that much better. They can hold the attention for that much longer. They can go onto social media – where they’ll find everyone else who is also on study leave – and gossip, or cyberbully each other, or share films which might be funny, scurrilous or pornographic.

I am amazed that parents appear not to be wise to this. Maybe they are, but they don’t want to make a fuss. After all, the institution of study leave is welcomed by teachers (don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted that it’s happening, and the utter tedium of going over past papers yet again will soon be over) and pupils alike. But I do also wonder if it’s not time to scrap it.

*Yes, I know.