Gove, Grammar, and Gnomes (and Michael Rosen)

Having read a piece by Toby Young in which he castigates the author Michael Rosen for a couple of proof-reading mistakes and uses this as a vehicle (a JCB perhaps?) for heaping praise on Michael Gove, I decided to apply some of the rules I had drummed into me at my traditional 1960s primary school (very much the style of schooling Michael Gove seems to approve of) to Michael Gove's What does it mean to be an educated person?:
And that is why, under this government, the Department for Education is setting higher expectations for every child.
This violates the "rule", I was taught, that you should not begin a sentence, still less a paragraph, with a conjunction.
Fans from abroad, she said, would apologise for their poor English.
This violates the "rule", I was taught, that words with Greek roots (apologizesthai) should take "ize" endings. (If you are under the misapprehension that "ize" endings are "American", please see the Oxford English Dictionary.)
We are introducing a basic test of competence in spelling, punctuation and grammar at the end of primary school.
This violates the "rule", I was taught, that lists should include the "Oxford comma", thus: "spelling, punctuation, and grammar".


This sentence is, in any case, badly phrased as it invites that interpretation that "grammar at the end of primary school" is a single item. It might have been better to write:

For students leaving primary school, we are introducing a basic test of competence in spelling, punctuation, and grammar.
Though many other equally good (or better) variations are possible.
But I will abjure such Ciceronian rhetorical tricks.
This violates the "rule", I was taught, that the first person singular and plural take "shall".

He, and many others, are deeply worried about what he calls, ‘the enacted school curriculum: what actually gets taught in classrooms.’
This violates the "rule", I was taught, that it should be possible to delete the text within parenthetical commas leaving a grammatical sentence behind. The commas here are simply incorrect. This sentence should simply begin "He and many others are ..."

But through the development of their natural curiosity, talents and potential.
This violates the "rule", I was taught, that sentences should include a verb.

There are dozens of similar "errors" in Gove's essay.

Of course all the above "rules" (with the possible exception of the final two) are moot, but I wonder how Michael Gove might respond here. Would he admit that these "rules" are correct and he broke them; or would he insist that these "rules" are incorrect and that he has some other rules which are really correct; or would he concede that the "rules" of "correct" English are a matter for debate and of evolution? Any of these three options would seem to undermine his position somewhat.

As long as we are relaxed about the missing Oxford comma, we cannot condemn the following sentence for breaking any rules of grammar:
I suspect those of us who are parents would recognise that there are all too many children and young people only too happy to lose themselves in Stephanie Meyer, while away hours flinging electronic fowl at virtual pigs, hang out rather than shape up and dream of fame finding them rather than them pursuing glory.
This is, nonetheless, an appallingly badly constructed sentence. I had to read it four times (experimenting with different stresses) before I got the sense of it. The final "them" is especially problematic. Does the fame find the pigs or the fowl or the children or the parents? Obviously it is the children but the sentence does its best to mislead the reader.

I suppose Michael Gove might argue that, although my above remarks are rather embarrassing for him, the fact that I am able to embarrass him is testament to the quality of the schooling I received. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although I had all the above "rules", and many others, drummed into me as a child, I was quite incapable of applying them properly at the time. My terrible English and my even worse handwriting ensured that I only just scraped through my English Language O level.

What turned me into the towering king of blogging I have become today (ok, I'm not really the "towering king of blogging", but my posts are better than anything Michael Gove has ever written) was the fact that I devoured books from an early age. My love of books was bequeathed not by my "reading is a chore but you've got to do it or we'll hit you" school but by my parents. My father left an even more "traditional" school with no qualifications, but the Marxist (in those days) Workers' Education Association and later the Labour-created Open University saw to it that he died with an honours degree - leaving a house full of books that I am still trying to find room for in my own house. Next weekend an old friend of his is visiting. He graduated from Trinity College Oxford and arrived at this destination via the aforementioned WEA and the Trades Union Movement's Ruskin College.

I suppose my favourite passage in Gove's diatribe is the following:
Jacqueline Wilson is not - by any measure - a reactionary nostalgist in the republic of letters. Her work deals - unsparingly and in detail - with divorce, mental illness, life in the care system and growing up poor. We’re not talking pixies dancing under the Faraway Tree, here.
Jacqueline Wilson is, like Michael Rosen, an inspiring children's author and Gove is right to praise her. Gove, however, is a man who has taken countless schools out of the control of elected bodies and handed them over to groups of fruit-loops who believe in everything from creationism, transubstantiation, reincarnation, winged-horses, and yogic-flying to (yes) gnomes. He will, thereby, leave a legacy of segregated schooling which I'm sure will be the same success as it has been in South Africa and Northern Ireland. Quite how Michael Gove can mention "pixies" with a straight face rather puzzles me. Moreover, the problem posed by a history teacher who does not know the date for (say) the Norman Invasion would seem to pale into insignificance alongside the problem posed by a science teacher who believes that the earth was created six thousand years ago.

Gove also includes some grossly disingenuous misrepresentations of Michael Rosen's views and a thoroughly dishonest account of the use of "Mr Men" in an exercise by the Active History web-site.

It should, perhaps, be conceded that not everything Gove has to say is complete and utter tosh. Gove is right to criticize the lamentable IT syllabus and right to say that children should be encouraged to write well and right to say the children should be encouraged to read good books. How children are best encouraged to write well and read good books is, however, not a matter best decided by Michael Rosen (infinitely better qualified though he is than Michael Gove to comment on such matters), or by Marxist theory, or by my anecdotal remarks, or (especially) by whatever popped into Gove's head last Tuesday. How children are best encouraged to write well and read good books could, and would, best be decided by subjecting the matter to empirical examination - you know, controlled trials, evidence, statistical analysis, all that sort of thing. A science teacher (though preferably not one from a creationist school) could explain it all to Gove, if Gove were remotely interested in such things.[2]

I hope that, while I make no attempt to pontificate on the best way to educate our children, my above remarks do establish that this is a complex subject that defies simplistic analyses and that, when Gove talks about "correct English" and suggests that the only things holding kids back from higher achievement are the unions and left-wing teachers, he is (to use the plainest English possible) talking out of his arse.

............. oh, and I expect that Michael Rosen's books will still be inspiring children to read when Michael Gove is a minor footnote in even the most right-wing history books.

PS Muphry's Law - postulated by the splendid writer and Telegraph fifth columnist Tom Chivers (@TomChivers) - suggests that "Any work criticizing the spelling/grammar of another piece will itself contain an error". On that basis, this post will probably contain about two dozen mistakes. Any corrections gratefully received, admitted, and acted upon - I'm a scientist not a pompous demagogue!
[1] Pinched from http://stephentall.org/
[2] It has been brought to my attention (by Anthony Cox @drarcox), since I wrote this post, that Michael Gove is actually planning some controlled trials - a move which I can only applaud. I have, therefore been somewhat unfair to him (above) on this specific issue. It remains the case, however, that none of his current pronouncements are based on such research and these would still seem to reflect nothing more than his strongly held prejudices.


Would single vaccines have improved protection in the population?

OK, no jokes or satire this time. Just a cold hard look at this one remaining issue.

From the beginning, my main point was that irresponsible journalism bears a great deal of blame for the current crisis (now threatening to spread to Birmingham). This point has been made again very eloquently (sorry this is behind the Times Paywall) by my comrade in arms (on this topic) journalist David Aaronovitch. He focuses especially on the South Wales measles outbreak, MMR uptake in that area, and misleading coverage provided by the South Wales Evening Post; but he has harsh words for many journalists - including journalists at the BBC (to wit a letter of complaint to them from me and their shameful response).

Many journalists have, meanwhile, offered their mea culpas but (as anyone who has been following my blog will be aware) the journalist Peter Hitchens has argued strongly that fault lies not with journalist like him who ran stories suggesting there might be some substance to fears about MMR (there isn't by the way) but with the NHS which, in spite of those fears, refused to provide courses of six single vaccines as an alternative to the two MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) combined jabs.

In my first post on this topic I set out briefly what the problem was with the NHS offering single vaccines, and Martin Robbins, writing in the Guardian, has gone into a great deal more detail on this topic. Mr Hitchens remains unconvinced:

This graph (from the BBC) shows MMR uptake rates since 1997 (this vaccine was introduced in 1988 and replaced single measles and rubella vaccines - there never was a licensed single mumps vaccine in the UK):

It seems obvious to Mr Hitchens (and his supporters) that, had we offered single vaccine programmes once the unfounded autism scare had taken hold, this would have ensured that the missing yellow in this graph would have been filled in as parents who had eschewed MMR switched to single vaccine programmes instead.

Now, as has been argued, there are all sorts of reasons - logistical, financial, and ethical - why the NHS did not give in to various pressure groups and provide the less well tested single vaccines. And we are not alone. No other country in the world has a national six jab single vaccine programme. Let us, however, suppose that all these objections had been overcome and we had managed to secure huge supplies of single vaccines with a reasonable (though less than fully documented) safety record. Would it have worked?

The graphic below illustrates the MMR only regime and Peter Hitchens's proposal (which was also Andrew Wakefield's proposal) side by side.[1]

Now what Hitchens and like minded people seemingly fail to grasp is that the NHS provision of a single vaccine programme and (especially) the announcement of said in the media would have resulted, not just in the transfer of people from the no vaccine group to the singles group but also a huge transfer of people from the MMR group to the singles group.

If single vaccines were just as good as MMR, this wouldn't matter. But there are three relevant problems with single vaccines (in order of increasing significance):
  1. The immune reaction they produce is not quite as strong. Less than one percent of kids who get both MMR jabs will still lack immunity. With single vaccines the percentage is higher (exactly how much higher is difficult to say with confidence since there are a number of different preparations and far less data on the use of six single vaccines rather than two MMR vaccines)
  2. Andrew Wakefield suggested a one year gap between jabs. If this protocol were followed, kids receiving their first jabs would have to wait two more years before they stood any chance of being fully covered and a further three years to achieve maximum protection.
  3. Compliance with six single vaccines would be much lower than compliance with two MMR jabs. People move house, have fallible memories, decide not to bother, lose paperwork, miss appointments etc. - especially when they are not paying for the vaccines themselves.
(There are also the - admittedly statistically small but still significant if they happen to you - problems of increased dangers of allergic reactions, infection and injury from the injections themselves - if you have six rather than two - but let's just concentrate on the numbers aspect.)

If we assume, for the sake of argument, that the average single vaccines child will be (because of the considerations listed) fifty-percent as well protected as an MMR child, then the benefits of any transfer from the No Vaccines group to the Singles group in the above diagram will be wiped out by the same number of transfers from the MMR group to the Singles group.

If we assume that the average single vaccines child will be thirty-three-percent as well protected as an MMR child, then the benefits of any transfer from the No Vaccines group to the Singles group in the above diagram will be wiped out by the half the number of transfers from the MMR group to the Singles group.

If we assume that the average single vaccines child will be sixty-seven-percent as well protected as an MMR child, then the benefits of any transfer from the No Vaccines group to the Singles group in the above diagram will be wiped out by the double the number of transfers from the MMR group to the Singles group.

There are three variables here: 1) the transfers from the No Vaccines group to the Singles group 2) the transfers from the MMR group to the Singles group; and 3) the percentage cover provided to the typical recipient by a programme of single vaccines.

Nobody, and certainly not Peter Hitchens, knows for certain what these three variables are, but we can make educated estimates. Apart from any other considerations, the fact that the MMR group is very large in relation to the other two groups tells us that even a small percentage of switchers from this group would have resulted in very large absolute numbers of switchers.

But, and here's the clincher, even if you are quite convinced (as I'm sure Mr Hitchens is despite expert opinion) that that the benefits would have outweighed the drawbacks had we introduced single vaccines back in (say) 2004 (or prior to then), just look at what has happened to MMR uptake rates since then!

Had we supplied single vaccines back in the day, this would not just have been for one year. We'd have been stuck with them forever. And every year that has passed since 2004 would have made the statistics (for MMR plus single vaccines provision) worse in comparison to MMR alone. We are now (thank goodness) nearly back up to the levels of MMR uptake we had before the scare. Any transfers to single vaccines beyond this point would reduce immunity in the population - even if single vaccines were ninety-ninety percent as good as MMR (which they certainly are not).

It is highly unlikely that single vaccines would have improved matters, even in 2004. Even if it would have done, It is virtually certain that, over the course of time, the cumulative effect of the option illustrated on the right of my diagram would have been worse overall than sticking with MMR only. The NHS did absolutely the right thing.

Of course the only reason we are having this discussion is because there was a scare. Instead of informing themselves and reporting responsibly, journalists in the print and electronic media blithely spread the scare around. Those journalists, I'm afraid, need to examine their consciences if any death or disablement results from the current outbreak. They did not do the right thing.

[1] I've simplified things by assuming that those using single vaccines privately under the current regime would have continued to do so or would have switched to NHS provided single vaccines under the alternative regime. This would have had no overall effect and can be ignored. I've also simplified things with respect to the fact that some MMR recipients fail to get the second MMR jab. The numbers, in this case, would be slightly different on either side of the equation but, since the numbers getting MMR are high and the numbers on getting the second jab are low, this would make very little difference and this complication can be ignored.

PS It occurs to be that this post may come across as journalist-bashing. I should perhaps emphasize that there are one or two scientists who don't come out of this smelling of roses and that it is only due to the tenacity of a journalist - Brian Deer - that the full story of Andrew Wakefield's actions ever came to light. (Life is complicated and simplistic explanations are usually wrong!)