Taking the Michael

by Dan H

Dan witters on about education, yet again
It’s been a busy couple of months for Michael Gove, Education Secretary. He’s rolled out a new primary/secondary syllabus, announced sweeping changes to <a href=”GCSEs and A-Levels, then done a massive U-Turn on GCSEs.

To give Michael Gove his due regarding the “Ebaccdown” (as it is being called) I like to think that this was because he listened to the advice of experts and stakeholders, rather than because he thought it might play badly in the dailies.

On the other hand, his proposals over the past year or so seem to have been designed almost entirely to appeal to a sort of ignorant bourgeoisie. People who think they’re too good to read the Daily Mail, but who speculate behind closed doors that maybe we should do something about all the immigrants you see nowadays. People who think that all the country’s problems can be solved by bringing back some combination of hanging, national service, and the eleven plus. People who think that the most sensible way to teach history is in chronological order.

Michael Gove, Education Secretary seems especially keen to bring back terminal exams. He seems to have a near-religious faith in the idea of taking exams after two years of continuous study – it’s a key plank of his reforms to GCSEs (the new ones, now he’s ditched the EBacc idea) and to A-Levels. Put exams back at the end of the course, says Michael Gove Education Secretary, and “standards” will improve and “dumbing down” will end and nobody will be “teaching to the test” and there will be no more “grade inflation.” I’m not sure why he thinks this, or where he got the idea from (apart from the obvious fact that that’s how it was done when he was at school).

I'm going to take a brief time out now to say – as I am sure I have said before and am sure I will say again – how much I loathe the phrase “dumbing down.” I simply cannot fathom the mind of a person who, wanting to denounce something for being lazy, shabby, and intellectually unsophisticated, would reach at once for such a lazy, shabby, intellectually unsophisticated phrase.

But I digress.

Michael Gove Education Secretary's proposed reforms to the UK educational system are, ultimately, much of a muchness. It's helpful to shake exams up every once in a while, because the needs of universities and employers change over time, and educational best practice can and should be continually updated. But it would be nice to feel that the reforms were being based on, well, something other than a kneejerk reaction against the fact that people tend to get slightly better results year on year. (A trend that, for GCSE English, actually reversed this year. But for some reason while rising grades is evidence of falling standards, falling grades have not been seen as evidence of the opposite).

Grade Inflation

One thing that Michael Gove, Education Secretary is very concerned about is something called “Grade Inflation”. To be fair, I can see why he's concerned about it, because it is a bit of a problem. On the other hand I don't think it actually means what he thinks it means.

When politicians and the popular press talk about “grade inflation” they are usually doing so in the context of that ever-popular assertion, that exams are “getting easier.” I've already written at some length about this old canard, but just to reiterate: nobody who says “exams are getting easier” ever explains which exams they're talking about or what it would mean for them to get easier, or asks whether it is a bad thing if they do. But grade inflation has nothing to do with this (probably mythical) year-on-year decrease in the difficulty of exams, and everything to do with … well … inflation.

Inflation, to quote ever-reliable wikipedia is “a loss of real value in the internal medium of exchange and unit of account within the economy”. Broadly speaking, it comes about when money supply grows at a higher rate than the economy, and it does actually have some economic advantages.

Going from “grades are getting higher” to “exams are getting easier” is roughly the equivalent of going from “prices are getting higher” to “coins are getting smaller.”

Grade inflation is a gradual reduction in the value of high grades in exams, caused by more people getting high grades in exams. It doesn't – contrary to what a lot of people think – mean that those grades are necessarily becoming easier to get, it certainly doesn't mean that people with those grades know less or are less qualified. There's just more of them. Yes, this means that it is harder for universities to find the “best” people, but that is because there are an awful lot of very good people out there, and because university admissions are on some level a crapshoot.

So yes, grades tend to go up, because of a whole bewildering variety of things (I would semi-seriously suggest that there's probably a strong correlation between A-level pass rates and economic growth – a stronger economy can support better learning environments, after all). This means that every year we are a little less able to identify who the “best” people are, but anybody who thinks that the purpose of education is to provide us with a way to rank eighteen-year-olds from best to worst is, frankly, a dickhead.

Abstinence Only

I'm about to use a kind of run-on sex-based metaphor here, so please bear with me.

A central plank of Michael Gove Education Secretary's plans for A-Level and GCSE reform is the return to exams at the end of two years. The arguments in favour of this reduce to the classic politician's syllogism: “Something must be done, this is something, therefore we must do it.” Possibly reinforced with the ever-popular supporting argument “well it never did me any harm.”

More specifically, the arguments in favour of this are an awful lot like the arguments in favour of abstinence-only sex education.

One of the big flaws which Michael Gove, Education Secretary identifies in The Way Things Are In Schools Nowadays is that there is too much emphasis on Exams and people take too many Resits. Education, he says, should be about Learning, not about Exams. The problem with Modular Exams, he says, is that people cram for the exam at the last minute, then forget it all the moment they've finished. But if we make everybody take all of their exams in one big chunk at the end of the course, that won't happen any more, and everybody will be better educated and universities will know who the best people are and the economy will get out of the toilet and we'll all live happily ever after.

Because obviously, just like pre-marital sex, the idea of “cramming before an exam and forgetting everything afterwards” is a completely modern one.

This is purely superstitious thinking. There is no magical switch that flicks on in your brain after twenty-three and a half months of continuous study that makes you truly and deeply understand something. Study for one year, cram for an exam, forget it all. Study for two years, cram for an exam, forget it all. It's the same thing, it's always been the same thing, it always will be the same thing.

Like Abstinence-Only, the two-year-rule identifies a problem and proposes the simplest, most direct and most straightforward common-sense solution. You don't want people to do something, tell them it isn't an option. And like Abstinence Only, all the two-year-rule really does is create a culture of denial that allows you to sweep problems under the carpet. I suppose this is the nature of government, if you can't solve a problem you do the next best thing, which is to declare the problem solved and hope that nobody notices that it isn't.

I do, as it happens, teach a modular A-Level course. And I do, in fact, often find that students forget a lot of their AS material in their A2 year. Then again, back when I did my (linear) A-levels back in 2009, I'm pretty sure I forgot a lot of my first-year material in the second year as well (fortunately I was able to revise a lot of it in the week before the exam and then forget it immediately afterwards). But contrary to what Michael Gove, Education Secretary may think, I am not a complete idiot. And neither are the exam boards (organisations in which Michael Gove, Education Secretary has so little faith that he originally proposed to force all schools to use the same board for the EBacc to prevent competition from causing a “race to the bottom”).

Modular exams, at least in my subject, are designed specifically so you need information from the first year to understand the second year (up to and including requiring candidates to answer AS-based questions, in greater detail, on an A2 paper). We don't need Her Majesty's Government to force us to make sure our students remember things, we do it already because it's … umm … kind of our job?

Of course here I should admit that I work in a very particular field – Physics all fits together like a very fitting together thing, and you're never going to get through a degree if you've forgotten your A-Levels, or A-Levels if you've forgotten your GCSEs, or GCSEs if you've forgotten how to – say – count. Not all subjects are like this, I don't know much about History (nor about a Science book, nor the French I took) but it seems plausible that you could have a second-year exam which did not require you to recall any first-year information. But then, if it's possible to do the second-year exam without recalling first-year information, then surely that implies that it's the kind of subject in which recalling specific information just isn't a problem. And if it is a problem, then the exams can be designed in such a way that they make it a problem, and once again your job is done.

Now might be a good time to remind everybody that the current reforms are the result of a very long consultation process with a variety of stakeholder groups, a consultation process which resulted in a number of reports like this one which concluded that A-Levels were broadly fit for purpose, did not need radical restructuring, and made no mention whatsoever of returning to terminal exams. But which did suggest that universities would like to see students doing more coursework, which of course Michael Gove, Education secretary has taken to mean that we should do as little coursework as possible.

Madonnas and Whores

To continue for a while with the weirdly sexual metaphors, this administration seems to have a strange Madonna/Whore complex when it comes to exams. On the one hand, exams are treated as these dirty little things we only keep around because it's absolutely necessary, the sorts of things that we don't talk about in polite society and which we want to expose our children to as little as possible. On the other hand we seem to want to rely solely and exclusively on exams as a way to assess (and indeed to improve) the learning of children and young people.

Michael Gove, Education Secretary seems to love exams. Certainly he doesn't seem to like any other kinds of assessment. He wanted to drastically cut back on coursework at GCSE and A-Level (despite universities wanting to see more of it). And he seems to think that the simple act of making the exams harder, or moving them to a different place in the course, or restricting the number of resits, or only letting one exam board set each subject will somehow improve the overall standard of education.

On the other hand, he also seems to find exams rather revolting. He's already axed January A-Levels (a move I broadly support, although I think he made it for the wrong reasons) and seems set to take out end-of-year-one exams as well. He talks a lot about how schools need “more teaching, less testing” and how he wants to see the end of “teaching to the exam” in order to raise “standards”. (I have never heard Michael Gove, Education Secretary explain exactly what he means by “standards” but he seems extraordinarily keen on raising them).

There is a paradox here. Worse, there is a disingenuous, hypocritical paradox here.

Schools have always taught to exams. In this country at least, there is a whole class of schools called “preparatory schools” the sole function of which is to prepare children for the entrance exams for prestigious secondary schools. Prestigious secondary schools, I should add, which are prestigious because they get good exam results. Good exam results which they get because they are very, very good at training people to pass exams.

At the heart of the proposed changes to the educational system there is a cynical, elitist myth. When Michael Gove, Education Secretary talks – as he so often does – about “raising standards” in education, he doesn't mean “making sure people get a better education,” he means “making sure only the right sorts of people get good grades.” The Etons and the Harrows of this world don't get the results they get because they offer a splendid all-round education that produces fully rounded individuals with a real passion for learning, they get great results because they've had literally centuries of practice at drilling students for exams. All “dumbing down” has done is let comprehensives get in on the act.

Our whole attitude to exams, success in exams, and what it means to succeed in exams is shockingly, I might almost say disgustingly, riddled with class prejudice and double standards. When people see that a whopping 74.9% of state school pupils get grades A*-C at A-Level they take it as evidence that the country is going to the dogs, that exams don't mean anything any more, and that soon we'll be handing out A* grades like condoms in a school nurse's office. When people see that 99.7% of pupils at Harrow get grades A*-C at A-Level they take it as evidence that Harrow is a jolly good school and obviously full of tip-top pupils who are all a credit to their country.

These two beliefs are irreconcilable. Either we believe that exams work as a method of assessment, or we do not. Either exams are a good measure of knowledge and understanding, and remain a good measure of knowledge and understanding, which would imply that a student who gets an A-Grade in 2013 is probably just as good as one who got an A-Grade in 1999, who is probably just as good as one who got an A-Grade in 1960, or they are not. And if they are not, the fact that some people get As and some people get Cs is completely meaningless – a measure of how well their school prepared them to sit standardised examinations and nothing else.

Michael Gove, Education Secretary seems to want us to believe, simultaneously, that exams are so flawed that they can no longer be trusted as a means of assessment and that they are so effective that the way to solve our country's educational problems is to put even more emphasis on exams.

Teaching to the Test

In my last article on this subject I pointed out that the whole question of “exams getting easier” is meaningless because how easy an exam is depends entirely on the context in which you sit it. Yes, a modern secondary school pupil would have no idea how to deal with an exam from 1956, but a pupil from 1956 would have no idea how to deal with a modern exam paper either. Now it's probably true that, overall, pupils from 1956 would do better on modern papers than modern pupils would do on 1956 papers, but this isn't because 1956 pupils were cleverer, or because modern exams are “dumbed down” (in Physics at least they contain significantly more content), it's because modern exams are properly designed to test knowledge and ability while exams in 1956, well, weren't.

I did not, of course, go to school in 1956 but I've seen papers, and I do have a certain amount of experience in this area because I work at an international school which runs its own in-house exams. Exams which are mostly written by members of staff and, when I started working here in the mid-2000s, were written by members of staff with decidedly 1950s ideas about what exam questions were supposed to look like.

An awful lot of what people call “dumbing down” is actually about making exams fit for purpose. An exam question that is vague, or poorly worded, or requires the candidate to read the examiner's mind will make the exam harder, and therefore limit the number of A-Grades, but at the cost of making the exam a strictly worse tests of ability. Conversely an easy exam question will usually very clearly distinguish between a candidate who has the knowledge expected of them, and a candidate who does not.

This is particularly true of “structured questions”. Michael Gove, Education Secretary doesn't like “structured questions” - he thinks they're too “easy”. And on some level he's right. Answering unstructured questions is an important skill, and one which A-Level students in particular need to develop. But information is a fickle thing, a question which adequately tests a student's ability to answer unstructured questions, or to apply knowledge in unfamiliar situations loses some of its ability to test anything else. Yes obviously a candidate who can answer a complex unstructured question about projectiles must know about projectiles, but what about the people who get the question wrong? Did they lack the knowledge, or just the skills associated with the question? And if they did not have the skills associated with the question was it because they lacked the ability, or because they simply hadn't been taught to answer questions of that type?

Notice that here we meet several more paradoxes. The government wants to make exams harder, but it also wants teaching to focus more on knowledge and less on skills (this came across very clearly in the consultations about the History syllabus), and to discourage teaching to the test. But the harder you make the exams (and the more emphasis you place on terminal exams as the One True Way for candidates to be assessed) the more necessary teaching to the test will become. Of course I'd notice here that Michael Gove, Education Secretary doesn't actually want to stop people from needing to teach to the test, just to stop people from doing it. Or perhaps more precisely, to stop so many people from doing it. Or perhaps more cynically to stop poor people from doing it.

Of course the other thing about “teaching to the test” is that – in all honesty – I don't think it's anywhere near as bad as people think it is. One of the things it took me a surprisingly long time to work out as a teacher is that students will only know how to do something if I teach them how to do it. Another thing it took me a surprisingly long time to work out is that I will only know how effectively I taught a student to do something by coming back later and checking if they can the thing I taught them. That is how teaching works, you have things you want the students to know or to be able to do, you use one or more methods to impart that information or that skill to them, and then you test them to see how well they they know it or do it.

Some people seem to genuinely think that this is cheating. After all, they seem to think, anybody can do something if they are taught to do it. As far as these people are concerned teaching is not really about skills or knowledge or learning at all. Rather it is a kind of filtering process, where people are naturally sorted out into those who Can and those who Can Not. And exams, similarly, are seen not as a test of specific knowledge and skills but a more general means to winnow wheat from chaff, worthy from unworthy. The idea that a person might do well in an exam merely because they have learned to do the things that the exam is designed to test feels, to these people, like a kind of injustice. A kind of trick.

If an exam is well designed, teaching the exam and teaching the subject will be the same thing. To take an example from my own subject, I spend a lot of time teaching my students how to answer exam questions about experimental design. This involves making sure that they are able to write about specific experimental techniques in clear, precise ways which state assumptions, do not leave out crucial information, and demonstrate good understanding of the practicalities of experimental work. Being able to answer these kinds of questions and understanding experimental physics are – assuming the questions are well written, and within the necessary confines of a written exam – one and the same thing. That, after all, is what the question is designed to test. Again, some people seem to think that this is cheating, that I should just teach “the subject” (whatever that means) and leave the tawdry matter of answering actual exam questions to the natural abilities of the student. This is absurd. It is flatly wrong to expect a person to perform a task if you do not tell them what that task is and how you wish it performed. It is borderline immoral to make a judgement about a person, a judgement that will affect their entire future, without making certain that they know well the criteria by which they are to be judged.


For as long as we've had an educational system in this country (or, I suspect, in any country) the big buzzword has been “Standards”. That, according to Michael Gove, Education Secretary, is what it's all about. Raising Standards.

But the standard of what exactly?

If we put A-levels back at the end of two years instead of allowing candidates to sit modules at the end of their first year, will that make it harder to get an A-Grade? Of course it will. Will reducing the numbers of resits reduce the numbers of A-Grades? Again, of course it will. Will this improve “standards”?

Again, standards of what?

And this, I think, brings us to the nasty, elitist heart of our educational system. Because when Michael Gove, Education Secretary talks about “standards” he doesn't mean “standards of education.” The standard of education is about how much people learn, how much they improve, how much the system supports them and helps them to achieve their potential. But that isn't what we're talking about here, what we're talking about here is the standards of people.

A person who gets an A-grade after two resits, by definition, knows exactly as much as a person who got the same grade on the first try (arguably more, since they did the exam more recently so will have forgotten less). But the person who resits, even though they learned the same things, even though they showed the same knowledge in the same way, is a lower class of person. Here the test is not how much you have learned, but how easily you learned it, and the ultimate goal is not to help people to learn more (or heaven forbid, to make learning easier or more accessible) but rather to restructure the exams so that they recognise only those people who have learned in a particular way.

Modular exams and resits make studying, learning, and passing exams easier, there's no doubt about it. They mean that people can come back from a disappointing exam result, that one bad day or one bad year is less likely to wreck somebody's chances (and let us not forget, bad days and bad years are far more likely amongst students from poorer backgrounds). They mean that struggling students can be identified and helped. They mean students have a chance to see what they did wrong and to do better. And surely doing better is what education is about? Surely more people learning more, and demonstrating that learning when tested is what “raising standards” means?

The heart of this problem is a subtle but profound disagreement about the nature and purpose of education. I tend to assume that the purpose of an education system is to teach people things, to help people improve themselves, to acquire knowledge skills and – if we must trade in buzzwords – cultural capital which will help them with the rest of their lives. But there is a persistent belief in the UK (and, I understand, the US) that this isn't the purpose of education at all. To a lot of people (many of them teachers, many of them examiners, many of them government ministers) the purpose of an education system is simply to find out who the cleverest people are and reward them accordingly. From this perspective Michael Gove, Education Secretary is making perfect sense. The more narrow and limited we make our educational system, and the more we rely on terminal exams which only assess one narrow facet of a student's learning, the more we will be able to restrict the top grades to a small, socially acceptable group of students. Students who, through the magic of circular definitions, we will be able to identify as “cleverer” or more deserving than those who don't do so well under the new “higher standards”.

Because after all, that's how it was when Michael Gove, Education Secretary was in school, and it never did him any harm.
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Comments (go to latest)
Shim at 21:53 on 2013-02-20
Really, really good article.

A lot of people who propose changes to education do seem to think it’s basically about measuring some kind innate worth. That regardless of what you actually teach, the Worthy will distil it into comprehensive understanding of the subject that allows them to ace tests, and the Unworthy will... stare blankly, one assumes.

They also seem to be complete strangers to the idea that teaching someone a subject, and gauging their ability at that subject, might relate in some way to how that subject is used outside the education system. This is what I find completely baffling about the knowledge-centric (or specifically, the fact-centric) model so many people plug. Facts are cheap. In real life you can almost always look up mere facts – these days, even if you’re abroad, at a remote project site or working in a lab at 2am. Mostly, they're handy for spotting cultural references you otherwise wouldn't notice. You can discuss your assignments with relevant (and irrelevant) people, confirm your ideas using previous work and authoritative sources, and yes, get help - I'm always asking colleagues about things, that's how teamwork does. In short, coursework is a far better representation of how you do things in adult life than sitting in a room for two hours in silence, frantically trying to answer questions about largely unrelated topics that you know fall within a specific subset of knowledge that you studied in the last two years.

Refusing to teaching to the test is like this: you offer someone an apprenticeship as a plumber. For several months, you hold training sessions, where you roam over the history of sanitation, fluid dynamics, metallurgy, and economics; explain the use of various tools; take them on field trips to sewage works, hypocausts, and boiler manufacturers; discuss notable pioneers in the field; and get them to submit reports on these topics. Finally, you give them a van, send them out alone on a normal day's assignments, and fire them if they make any mistakes.
http://shabogangraffiti.blogspot.com/ at 01:43 on 2013-02-21
Brilliant. Thank you. I'm sharing this all over the place.
Melanie at 03:22 on 2013-02-21
The problem with Modular Exams, he says, is that people cram for the exam at the last minute, then forget it all the moment they've finished. But if we make everybody take all of their exams in one big chunk at the end of the course, that won't happen any more

...Has he even talked to a student? The more you concentrate the grade-affecting stuff in one place, the more "strategic" it is to cram then forget, especially if you're mainly taking the class because you're required to rather than because you're especially interested in it and really want to learn about whatever the class is about.
Arthur B at 10:48 on 2013-02-21
If Grade seriously believes that his reforms will result in people not "teaching to the exam", he's bafflingly stupid, but I don't think that's the case; I am reasonably sure he is doing this purely for reasons of ideological nostalgia and pulling out the first excuse which comes to mind because he thinks we are bafflingly stupid.

Modest proposal: don't want people to teach to the exam? Fine. Scrap all exams and assess courses purely on coursework.
Dan H at 10:28 on 2013-02-22

This is what I find completely baffling about the knowledge-centric (or
specifically, the fact-centric) model so many people plug. Facts are

I think this is genuinly tricky and I tend to agree with the people who observe that separating "knowledge" or "facts" from "skills" or "understanding" isn't actually a helpful approach. It's true that you can look up facts whenever you want to, but at the same time knowing some facts is still very helpful. Knowing that the Cultural Revolution ran from 1966 to 1976 isn't useful in and of itself, but if you're talking to a sixty-year-old Chinese person it's useful to realise that they probably grew up during the Cultural Revolution.

To put it another way, facts are tools. And like any tool you probably *can* borrow them from other people, but it's often far more convenient to have your own set.

Having said that, the facts-centric approach taken by Gove and his ilk is seriously problematic, because it *isn't* about facts-as-tools, it's about facts-as-shibboleths.

In short, coursework is a far better representation of how you do things in
adult life than sitting in a room for two hours in silence, frantically trying
to answer questions about largely unrelated topics that you know fall within a
specific subset of knowledge that you studied in the last two years.

Most universities would agree with you. The problem is that coursework is a bugger to administrate (look at the problem with GCSE English over the last year) and can be deeply unfair (people whose parents can help them do far better than those whose parents can't or won't).

Also, were I feeling sarcastic, I might suggest that exams prepare you pretty well for adult life. You can get a long way in this world by being basically shit, but knowing how to put yourself across well in the two hours where it really counts.

Finally, you give them a van, send them out alone on a normal day's assignments, and fire them if they make any mistakes.

Although with Gove it's more like the other way around. You have a situation where plumbers are taught to fix drains, and where every year more and more plumbers fix more and more drains successfully, so you decide that the whole system is in decline, and we need a more demanding plumbing course which focuses on sanitation history and fluid dynamics.

We've got almost exactly this problem in the news today, with Gove being very upset that UK pupils don't keep up with other countries in Maths. And by "don't keep up with other countries" we mean "don't do as well in a specific standardised test". A problem which he wishes to rectify by ... putting less emphasis on tests? Which he is going to do by putting all the tests at the end?


...Has he even talked to a student?

If he had, I'm not sure it would make a difference. He talked to a huge number of experts in the field of education nearly all of whom said "A-levels are fine but we'd like more coursework please" and somehow interpreted that as meaning "A-levels are too easy and we need to go back to doing all the tests at the end."

@Arthur B

I am reasonably sure he is doing this purely for reasons of ideological
nostalgia and pulling out the first excuse which comes to mind because he thinks
we are bafflingly stupid.

I think he's doing it for reasons of ideological nostalgia because he thinks the majority of voters are ideologically nostalgic. He's probably right.
Arthur B at 11:08 on 2013-02-22
Also, were I feeling sarcastic, I might suggest that exams prepare you pretty well for adult life. You can get a long way in this world by being basically shit, but knowing how to put yourself across well in the two hours where it really counts.

Also, depending on the field you're working in a well-designed exam might actually be a better test of your abilities than coursework. The exams for becoming a patent attorney, for instance, will usually throw crisis situations at you and test your ability to rapidly work out what's going on and throw together some advice on the fly, because you'll need to be able to do that if you get contacted by a client who's got themselves into an urgent mess two hours before the patent office closes on Friday and you won't necessarily have any colleagues available to give you pointers. Although there's lots of professions and pursuits which don't involve quite that level of responsibility, there are few-to-no courses your adult life will take which won't involve moments of urgency where it's important to be able to muddle through on your own without dawdling.
http://fightstart.blogspot.com/ at 03:13 on 2013-02-23
I only found this site a couple of months ago. I've loved browsing the archives and reading the game reviews and sarcastic take-downs of awful books. This, however, is the first thing that's made me want to stand up and applaud, let alone comment. Well said, sir.

It's just a relief that Gove's ideological flaws are apparently only surpassed by those in his competency. For someone so opposed to the idea of resits, his department does seem to need a hell of a lot of them.
Andy G at 15:00 on 2013-02-23
Great post once again! Regarding Gove's motives for his U-turn, I believe at least in part he was threatened with legal action if he gave one exam board a monopoly.
Andy G at 18:20 on 2013-03-24
Suspect many of you may already have seen this, but Stewart Lee's latest reminded me of this article.
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