Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Monday 5 December 2011

Be careful what you wish for...

In the high-and-far-off-times, O Best Beloved, when the Coalition was so-new-and-all, I exhorted them thus on the subject of gambling, in a post on punters taken for a ride by dodgy fairground stalls:
Here's an idea for Michael Gove & Co.; if you want lessons in school to be relevant and useful in later life, you could forget about Citizenship GCSE's and teach some basic probability and a realistic calculation of the chances of winning.
And behold, not eighteen months later, a plan is afoot to introduce lessons on gambling. But it isn't what I meant at all!

Instead of incorporating into maths lessons the ability to work out odds and calculate risk, the proposed course will be part of PSHE and include a class discussion in which pupils are asked 'to identify some of the more positive aspects of gambling'.

This, together with the stated objective - "to enable students to increase their knowledge and understanding of gambling" - is, I suppose, hardly surprising, given that the project is the brainchild of an industry-funded organisation specifically to tackle problem gambling and its given aim is to teach "responsible gambling" instead.

Since my main area of concern is the 'tax on stupidity' aspect of the situation, I don't hold out much hope that this will improve matters; according to The Times, 'In its submission, Gamcare admits that an initiative in Canada left pupils more aware of how gambling works but 'not more likely to know about the signs of problem gambling''.

Now I ought to declare my position on this - I have a long-standing aversion to gambling. This is due in part to generations of Calvinist ancestors glaring down from the hereafter (even atheists sometimes find themselves looking over their shoulders) but mainly to my experiences at school.

The annual bazaar was the province of Sister Patrick, who ran a bottle stall from which nearly all the winning tickets had been extracted in advance. Pupils also had to run the gauntlet of Sr Mary's dartboard (blunted darts), Sr Seamas' coconut-shy (glued down) and Sr Clare's tombola (you've guessed it). Most of us had worked it out by the time we left, but by then there was always a new crop of bright-eyed youngsters, eager to win and well-supplied with pennies.

The nuns had it nicely calculated - just enough pupils won prizes to keep everyone's hopes up while extracting the maximum amount of profit. I may not have derived much spiritual benefit from that education, but being thus parted on an annual basis from my hard-earned pocket-money gave me a lifelong aversion to risking cash ever again.

One of the problems with lessons on gambling is that teenagers' brains are hot-wired for risk-taking and primed to respond to the prospect of reward. Some never grow out of it; the same phenomenon sells millions of scratchcards and Lottery tickets every week, even when the purchasers are struggling to make ends meet.

Instead of appealing to a judgement and reasoning ability pupils are unlikely to have, surely it would be better for government initiatives to use maths to illustrate exactly how remote are the chances of winning.

But then, of course, no-one would play the National Lottery*.

(*Nick M at Counting Cats sums up the situation admirably in a comment)


  1. "some of the more positive aspects of gambling"

    There aren't any - gambling is for losers - literally.

    I agree with you about risk and probability - it's how we could teach kids why gambling is for losers and who the inevitable winners are. It's a lesson in exploitation too.

  2. "The nuns had it nicely calculated - just enough pupils won prizes to keep everyone's hopes up while extracting the maximum amount of profit."

    Did they leave to work for Camelot..?!?

  3. AKH, by the wonder of targeted advertising, my computer is now bristling with invitations to become a maths teacher.

    Incidentally, I wonder whether teachers are expected to deliver this educational package; I certainly would not want to.

    Julia - :D, it wouldn't surprise me at all if Camelot was set up by someone with similar experiences in the past!


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