Nov 222011
 

From the Mail:

Some universities, such as London Metropolitan, have slashed more than 60 per cent of their courses, including philosophy, performing arts and history.

Much as I’m not in favour of direct state funding of university degrees, nor am I remotely in favour of the apparent belief, held by just about everyone in the western world, that the purpose of learning is to make one an economically viable unit.

‘Go to university so you can get a job and… pay taxes, god damn it!’

No, I’m sorry. That is not the purpose of knowledge, learning, or education, as far as I am concerned. It’s important to be ‘economically useful’ solely so that one can support oneself; whether this requires learning is a matter of circumstance.

It is particularly dreadful that the welfare state and the state funding of tertiary education, and the cost that involves to the taxpayer, has resulted in this pathetic narrative about education—learning how to think, process information, and make independent analyses—being reduced to the question of whether or not what you learn helps you get a job.

To the point where universities are axing degrees that accomplish precisely the goals a university degree should accomplish.

When the taxpayer doesn’t have to subsidise ‘economically non-viable units,’ one doesn’t have to be over-concerned with how people enlarge their brains and their understanding of humanity.

I would be interested to know what degree courses London Metropolitan University will be retaining. Presumably, given the jobs possessed by people I know, courses like ‘Working in the Public Sector’ and ‘How to Add No Value in Human Resources’?

But perhaps that’s uncharitable. I do know people doing productive work, who all seem to have degrees in, y’know, philosophy and history.

Or no degree at all—and have become complete humans all on their own, without the subsidy of the state, or the help of London Metropolitan ‘University.’

Jesus.

UPDATE: Okay, so I’m told that wasn’t the clearest post I’ve ever produced.

Here’s my deal.

Knowing various stuff and supporting oneself independently are separate things. State subsidy of knowing stuff, and state subsidy of those who can’t support themselves, have conflated these concepts.

You don’t always need to know some stuff in order to support yourself. Likewise, lots of people who do know some stuff can’t support themselves. (Cf. OccupyLSX.) The two do not need to be linked.

Axing history and philosophy degrees does not mean that university graduates will, therefore, be able to support themselves, even if they are paying £6k more for the privilege of studying. All it means is that a significant contingent of people will no longer know stuff to do with history or philosophy. Whether this assists in their economic viability is neither here nor there; what it does mean is that particular knowledge will be systematically lost.

Now, you can choose to assess the value of that knowledge economically, as everyone seems to be doing currently.

On the other hand, you can say, ‘Hey, people should be able to support themselves. Quite apart from that, at least some people should know some stuff about what it’s meant to be a human being up to this point. But being able to support oneself doesn’t mean one has to be completely focused on being able to support oneself.’

One of the greatest things about our society becoming ever wealthier is the growth of leisure (Cf. just about every blog post by Tim Worstall). Leisure is, essentially, the opportunity to think about what it means to be a human being. If we’ve reached the point where thinking about being a human is so devalued that we’re not even providing the opportunity to people willing to spend their money (i.e. leisure) on it, then we might as well all work ourselves into the grave right now.

Honestly, what good is having wealth and leisure time otherwise?

Disclaimer: I have two degrees in history. And yes, I work and pay taxes. The reason I got my job in the first place was, incidentally, due to blogging. Maybe universities should be offering that as a degree course.

Jul 212010
 

[I wanted to leave this as a comment over at John Demetriou’s original post, but his implementation of Blogger rejects comments of more than 4,096 characters.]

JD, unlike your usual rants, this post is dire. I don’t mean that to be harsh, but you’re coming at this from an angle of misunderstanding that makes your ‘I don’t understand’ claims all too believable.

For one thing, you refer to ‘Americans’ and ‘the American people’ as if there is one collective American mind, and you find its schizophrenia puzzling. Perhaps for the sake of simplicity, it might be better to think of Americans as two collective minds: those who voted for Obama, and those who didn’t. For all sorts of reasons, he is and has been a polarising figure. And so you have two poles, rather than the single mad hive-mind you say is so bizarre. It is one pole that exhibits ‘curious rage’ against Obama, not ‘the American people.’

For another thing, you massively overstate Obama’s popularity during the election and at the beginning of his term. You assert that he ‘won by a landslide’ and was the subject of ‘hero worship,’ ‘hagiography,’ and high approval ratings. In fact, he did not win by anything like a landslide. He won with 53% and 28 states.

By comparison, in 2004, George W Bush won with 51% and 31 states. In 1988, George H W Bush won with 53% and 40 states. And in 1984, Ronald Reagan won with 59% and 49 states. And that wasn’t even as impressive as the 1972 election, when Richard Nixon (Nixon, of all people!) won 49 states and 61% of the vote.

Obama has had nothing like the electoral success other presidents have managed. Your perception of hero-worship and hagiography, just like your perception of rage and hatred, comes from one pole of the American populace.

Furthermore, your understanding of the role of US president is woefully incomplete. You say that ‘Bush inherited an excellent, albeit imperfect, set of books from Clinton and very quickly wrecked it.’ As if either Clinton or Bush had anything whatsoever to do with the books or quality thereof. Congress controls the cash, and the Congress that delivered Clinton a budget surplus was, in composition, almost exactly the same Congress that fucked it all up for Bush. And the Congress Obama has been working with is, in composition, almost exactly the same Congress Bush was working with during his last two years in office. The state of the books in the US is entirely unrelated to the views and actual quality of the president.

You also say that Obama is hated ‘for having the temerity to actually carry out what he proposed to do.’ Again, the president does not ‘do’ things. He does not draft legislation, propose it, debate it, or vote on it. He merely signs it once it’s made its way through Congress. (Or not, as the case may be, but I don’t think Obama’s actually used his veto yet.)

So any carrying out during Obama’s term has been done by Congress. And what they have carried out bears little actual resemblance to the platform on which he campaigned. Sure, the health care bill, but what about everything else? What about the war, the ‘middle-class tax cuts,’ the great repeal of the Bush administration’s incursions on civil liberties? Neither he nor Congress have done any of those things, which were major selling points among Obama’s supportive node. Surely you don’t think the whole election revolved around the question of a healthcare bill?

A healthcare bill which you describe thus: ‘The timing…was perhaps ill-judged, even from a social democrat perspective, but this was one of those once-in-a-thousand-years opportunities, politically, to achieve this ambition.’ For a once-in-a-thousand-years opportunity, Obama and his Congress sure did fuck it up, didn’t they? Instead of doing thorough research, either before the election or after it, and determining the best possible way to ensure universal, affordable healthcare, they cobbled together a travesty of a bill, full of unrelated pork to get various hold-out politicians onside, that when all is said and done, could serve as an exemplar of what every rent-seeker (in this case, the insurance industry) hardly dares even to dream. That’s not even to mention the costs this bill imposes, both to individuals and to the body politic, which have been revised upward continually since the passage of the bill. And the bill fails to achieve even its basic objective, which is to ensure that the poor and low-paid have access to affordable, customised insurance and care.

Is it any wonder that a significant number of Americans are horrified and disgusted by it?

All of this is a far cry from, ‘Hey, you all voted for him, he did what he said he’d do, so what’s the big problem?’

Finally, you assert that les Americains sont fous because ‘their media and overall educational standards are so lacking in substance.’ This is, basically, not true. Unless by ‘their media’ you mean Fox News, and by ‘their overall educational standards’ you mean ‘those five schools in Kansas where they teach intelligent design.’

Or perhaps you just mean the rednecks, Tea Partiers, and Christians are poorly educated. Maybe you can confirm or deny.

What I don’t understand is why you are displaying so much contempt for a bunch of people who, for the most part, share your opinions. These are people who didn’t vote for Obama (as presumably you wouldn’t have, did you have the opportunity) and who loathe what he stands for and what he’s supported as president. Sure, some of them have authoritarian tendencies, but they’re with you on at least 50% of stuff. If you were in their position, wouldn’t you be angry? They didn’t want him, they didn’t vote for him, and his presidency is riding roughshod over their cherished conception of what the United States is.

I never expected you to take this position, I must say. That you would present Americans who disagree with their president and his Congress, and who display that disagreement with words, ideas, and peaceful legitimate protests, as ‘wild, irrational…mad and retarded’ comes as a great surprise to me.

And a serious disappointment.

UPDATE: JD rebuts here.

Mar 152010
 

I cannot even begin to identify anyone whom I loathe more than I loathe Ed Balls, but at least I could console myself that it was nothing personal – until today.

Ed Balls, in his infinite fucking wisdom, has decided that Latin is a useless subject in schools. Like Boris Johnson, I am outraged, not least because this is my livelihood at stake. When the Secretary of State for Schools declares a subject useless, you can be sure that it will be sliced from the curriculum with great precision, Hannibal Lecter-style.

To quote BoJo quoting Balls:

Speaking on the radio, Spheroids dismissed the idea that Latin could inspire or motivate pupils. Head teachers often took him to see the benefits of dance, or technology, or sport, said this intergalactic ass, and continued: “No one has ever taken me to a Latin lesson to make the same point. Very few parents are pushing for it, very few pupils want to study it.”

Balls, my friend, I will tell you why head teachers have never taken you to a Latin lesson. First, it’s because Latin is offered in so few schools these days that I doubt any of the ones you’ve visited on your infrequent and disruptive photo-ops even teaches the subject.

Second, it would be a pointless waste of time to allow you to observe the teaching of such an elegant and complex subject. Not only would you be incapable of understanding the material, much less appreciating it, the superior knowledge of the students would show you up in a Tennessee heartbeat. Could you even begin to grasp the idea of an ablative absolute, or listen with any light of comprehension in your eyes to a discussion of the sexual puns in a poem by Ovid? Students can. Could you find in your shrivelled soul an inclination to laugh at the comedy of Aristophanes or experience a pang of sympathetic horror at the tribulations of Oedipus? Students can.

Could you learn the lessons of Sulla and Pompey, that it is not okay to destroy a country in pursuit of one’s own personal ambition? Of course not. As BoJo points out, you studied the classics at school. If you could have absorbed the moral of such cautionary tales from ancient history, you would not be what you are today.

Which is an ignorant, judgmental, pompous fool with no appreciation of culture or history and no interest in or understanding of what it takes to make a child a human being, rather than a mindless automaton whose only skill is the ability to wibble on pointlessly about social justice and carbon footprints.

As long as Ed Balls remains a force within the Labour Party, nobody will ever convince me that that party intends any good for anybody whatsoever, try they mightily, and I will do everything in my power to persuade every British voter I encounter that a vote for Labour is a vote for the total destruction of civilisation.

Jan 182010
 

People of Britain, do you want fewer teachers? Do you wish to have teacher:pupil ratios of 1:45 across the land? Do you wish for huge schools operated by huge education authorities and staffed by teachers in huge teachers’ unions who can command ever higher and higher salaries and perks for their members as there is more and more work to go round and not enough teachers to do it?

If you answered yes to all of those questions, then good for you: because that’s exactly what you’ll get.

Earlier this year, the General Teaching Council expressed its wish that all teachers, whether in state or independent schools, be required to have a teaching certificate. This would entail a year of post-graduate education for all teachers, creating further cost to the taxpayer and further debt for the teacher-in-training. Further costs are a barrier to entry to the profession, and will result in fewer teachers.

Now David Cameron has said he would deny state funds to teachers-in-training whose undergraduate degrees were ranked third-class or below:

Under a Conservative government, according to Mr Cameron, no one with less than a 2:2 degree would be granted taxpayer’s money for postgraduate teacher training. It builds on a Tory plan announced last year to raise the entry qualifications for primary teachers.

Look, Camerhoon: the reason we have state funds for teacher training at all, and the reason for golden hellos, student loan discounts, and easier immigration requirements for teachers of certain subjects is because there are not enough teachers, good, bad, or otherwise. The financial incentives exist to attract people to what the government officially classes as a shortage occupation. Teaching is no easier than any other job. The salary it commands, in general, is lower than other professions that require a post-graduate degree. It is a job that few people are prepared to do, for one reason or another, and it is a sad fact that in this country the perception of teachers is that they went into teaching because they could not do anything else useful. (In some cases, that may be true, of course, and there are certainly a fair few teachers out there who are crap at their jobs.)

But the main point is that the vast majority of people do not choose to be teachers. The government’s policy is therefore to bribe the ones who can be bribed with financial perks. The message, so far, has been clear: ‘Please be a teacher! We will give you money!’

Now, suddenly, we are getting this incredibly stupid message: restrict the supply further! Only this will give the teaching profession status!

Britain can learn from Finland, Singapore and South Korea, who “have some of the best education systems in the world because they have deliberately made teaching a high prestige profession. They are brazenly elitist, making sure only the top graduates can apply.”

I’ve got news for you, dude. Teaching is a high-status profession in other countries for two primary reasons: first, lots of people want to be teachers. They are over-supplied. When lots of people want a particular job, employers naturally take only the best. Teachers have a high status in these places because their populations place tremendous value on the quality of education. Here in Britain, where there aren’t enough teachers to fill the positions that exist, we can’t really afford to be so picky. And, plainly, the value people place on quality of education here is minimal. Why do I say this? Because in Britain, a politician can be credibly attacked for having attended a top-quality school. Because in Britain, universities are encouraged to deny places to applicants from top-quality schools. Because in Britain, the ‘professions’ are told to deny entry to pupils from top-quality schools. Because in Britain, clearly, quality of education takes a serious backseat to social justice and equality.

The other reason for the popularity of teaching in many other countries is that teachers are seriously protected from market forces. In Spain, for example, it is virtually impossible to sack a teacher. Many teachers never leave the profession, and young people who want to teach are often obliged to wait years for a position to open up (years which many of them spend, according to my anecdata, working in tapas bars and living with their parents). Teachers are paid an enormous amount of money relative to most other jobs in these places; they have excellent working conditions, a great deal of disciplinary freedom, and good facilities available for their use. In short, these other places spend a huge amount of money on education, and they are willing to pay top dollar for top-quality educators.

Britain… does not. Education is, by comparison, underfunded; teachers’ pay scales are not linked to quality, but to seniority and certificates; facilities are poor, discipline is lax, and graduates with good degrees can earn far more money in other jobs. National pay scales mean that teachers in parts of the country where cost of living is high are short-changed compared to teachers in other places. And the state sets a maximum salary for teachers who do not have a teaching qualification (£25,000 pa full-time, for the curious), meaning that pay is not even related to the amount of work one does or time one spends on the job, much less the quality of that work.

So: in a country where people don’t want to be teachers, quality of education is not a priority, and historically the government’s stance on the profession is to bribe people to enter it, the solution is to make it even harder to become a teacher?

Good luck with that, Dave.

UPDATE: Iain Dale has posted a hefty extract from Camerhoon’s speech:

We’ve made our teachers lives more difficult, undermining their judgement, curbing their freedom, telling them what to do and how to do it. We send them into some chaotic environments with little protection or support, leaving them feeling demoralised and under-valued.

That’s right – you’ve made teaching a very unattractive profession. People with the ‘best brains’ look at this litany of woes and think, why in the name of sweet Jesus would I want to do this job? And then they go do something else.

If we’re only going to let the best brains teach, and most of the best brains don’t want to because

people with a good degree who would make great teachers think instead about the civil service, the BBC, maybe the Bar

then we’re not going to have very many teachers at all, are we?

Now. How do we make teaching more attractive than the civil service, the BBC, and the law? For a start, the state could stop undermining teachers, telling them what to do and how to do it, protect them from abuse, support them on matters of discipline – pay them according to effectiveness and skill whilst leaving them free to find the best path to effective teaching.

If you want the best brains to teach, make teaching attractive to people with good brains. What do people with good brains find attractive? Freedom to find the best way to do their jobs, opportunities to be creative, fair rewards for outstanding job performance, and the ability to be a mover and shaker in their profession.

At the moment, if you’re a twenty-something or thirty-something who has made it in another career but fancy giving teaching a go, the bureaucratic-odds are stacked against you.

And not just that. Most of them would be taking a drastic pay cut and surrendering all personal autonomy on the job, not to mention running the gauntlet of the CRB system to prove they’ve never so much as looked at a child cross-eyed. Anyone who’s been successful in a non-teaching career and wants to become a teacher should be hired on the spot, qualification or no, because nobody who wasn’t passionately dedicated to the art of pedagogy would do such a personally disadvantageous thing. Who cares what kind of degree they received?

We’re going to change all that and give high-flying professionals a fast-track into teaching. We will replace the Graduate Teacher Programme with a new one – Teach Now. Modelled on Teach First, it will be a one-stop-shop for people who want to transfer into teaching.

No, no, a thousand times no! Waive the qualification requirement entirely.

In fact, do that across the board. Far more people would go into teaching as a result, and there’d be so many that schools might actually be able to sack and replace the crappy ones.

We need much greater flexibility than currently exists – flexibility over rewarding the best and yes, getting rid of the worst. So we will free schools to pay good teachers more. With our plans, head teachers will have the power to use their budgets to pay bonuses to the best teachers.

And because the evidence shows that schools that have the greatest impact in poorer areas are the ones that extend their hours into evenings and weekends, we will also give them the flexibility to reward teachers for longer hours.

This is good, actually.

But we also give head teachers greater powers in the other direction. Today, it’s far too difficult for them to fire poorly performing teachers.

This is not. I’m all for schools being able to sack bad teachers, but this is only a useful tactic if you can hire a new one. And there aren’t enough teachers to go round.

We’re going to say to our teachers, if you want to search for and confiscate any item you think is dangerous or disruptive- you can. If you want to remove violent children from the classroom – you can. And if you want protection from false allegations of abuse that wreck lives and wreck careers – we’ll make sure you have it.

How? Are you going to repeal some legislation? If so, what? Are you going to use the criminal justice system to crack down on dangerous students? If so, how will you force the judges to issue harsher penalties? Will you use legislation to ensure that false allegations are expunged from the records? Will you get rid of the ISA, which includes hearsay, rumour, and false allegations as ‘evidence’ in its vetting scheme? Where are the details, dude?

Anyway. This is all just to reiterate my point: restricting teacher training to people with good degrees will simply worsen the teacher shortage, because most academically successful people (‘best brains’) don’t want to become teachers. It’s an unattractive profession to people who value creativity, resourcefulness, and freedom to innovate. And even if the best brains did become teachers, there’s no guarantee they’d be good. Many academically gifted people have trouble communicating the subject of their expertise at a level that is accessible to schoolchildren anyway; and probably the core skill involved in teaching is being able to synthesise patiently, to simplify complex ideas, to keep what you’re saying on a level kids can understand and in a way they can tune into.

Finally, I will say this. I teach Latin. I am not an expert in the subject, nor do I have a degree in it, nor do I have the faintest clue where my American university degree would fall on the degree-class scale used in the UK. I do not have a teaching qualification. And yet every time I apply for a teaching position, the school falls all over itself to hire me and to pay me well above the going rate for my services. I can’t be the only teacher like that. David Cameron’s plans will, by and large, make it harder for people like me to get teaching jobs. And for what? So that a bunch of smarty-pants graduates with 2:2s or better can have a ‘high-prestige’ career.

Camerhoon, school is not about teachers. It’s about children. And anyone who wants to teach, and can demonstrate that they do it well, should be encouraged to do so, whether they have fancy papers to qualify them or not, and whether they have the biggest brain in Britain or just a mediocre brain that happens to be full of passion and love of learning and dedication to showing kids how amazing the world they live in is.

UPDATE 2: Yes, and many more times yes, from the BHS:

For the Conservatives, we need to restrict the pool of applicants to one which is ‘brazenly elitist’, in the hope that by only recruiting the very best graduates, you’ll recruit only the very best teachers. There are two major problems with this. First, we still have a teacher shortage, as evidenced by the fact that there are some substantial rewards for people training to teach subjects like science and maths. Second, quite apart from the fact that there are scores of people with mediocre qualifications who are exceptional teachers, there’s no guarantee that someone who graduated from Oxbridge with a first in Mathematics is going to possess the people skills needed to succeed in a classroom. It’s quite possible that the Tories’ plans would not only lead to fewer teachers, but fewer good teachers as well.

Jan 042010
 

Apart from his stupid name, the first thing I really learned about Ed Bollocks is that his modi operandi are, primarily, lying and intimidation. Which tactic is he employing in his most recent Guardian piece, I wonder?

True Statements:

The Tories and their media friends want the election to be a referendum on the government.

That’s what an election is, no? That’s certainly what Labour wanted the elections in 1997, 2001, and 2005 to be: first, a referendum on the Conservative government (which many people hated), and then a referendum on the succeeding Labour governments (which Balls and the rest of his party claimed had been so successful that there was no need for change). Is it really necessary to cry foul now?

[The Tories] don’t want any scrutiny of their policies and they don’t want the election to be a choice.

Of course. None of the main parties wants any scrutiny or choice. That’s why they’re all working so hard to pump out the blanket statements, bland platitudes, and vague reassurances (as we shall see in the rest of Balls’s piece).

False Statements:

That’s why [the Tories] dismiss talk of policy differences or dividing lines as “false”, “partisan” or, ludicrously, as “class war”.

But it’s only in the last few weeks that the Tories have called this “class war” in a bid to stop any scrutiny of their policies.

Oh – so it was the Tories who came up with this ‘class war’ movement? Not to mention I have trouble imagining the Tories really want to publicise their policies as not being different from Labour’s and not as dividing lines. This statement is rubbish.

And, while the leaders’ TV debates will inevitably draw the attention, I hope we will see the cabinet and shadow cabinet debating too.

I bet this is the last thing Balls hopes for, if for no other reason than that he is supremely un-telegenic.

Now, as in 1997, our education policy is driven by the core New Labour idea of opportunity and aspiration for all, not just some; improving standards and expanding opportunity in every school, not just a handful in each area.

Balls to that one, too.

[The Tories’] proposal is that, regardless of local need, those parents with time on their hands should be given taxpayers’ money to set up and run a new school for their children, including those now in private schools.

Misrepresentation. From what I understand, their proposal is that, actually, anybody with ‘time on their hands’ could set up and run a new school – meaningfully, this includes teachers, who not only know how to do such a thing better than random parents, but many of whom would also love the chance to free themselves from the shackles of state-school regulations, paperwork, and bureaucratic oversight. Many private-school teachers would jump at the opportunity, too.

Hyperbole:

And this year, Britain faces the starkest choice for decades – on the economy, public services and our relations with Europe.

Sure, sure. Every election is the starkest choice for decades, every election is the most important since the last big crisis. And yet some party or other wins every election, and shit always happens, and we always need another election. Give this overblown idea a rest.

Tory education policy is an elaborate con trick on millions of parents and pupils. Just like the Tory assisted places scheme, or the “pupil passport” proposed by Cameron in 2005, they want to take resources from the many to fund the education of a few.

Yes, that’s exactly what the Tories want to do! Screw 90% of the electorate; they’re only out to help the richest decile! Because, obviously, that’s a great strategy for winning elections. Seriously, what is this man on? And why does he imagine it’s perfectly fine for the minority (whatever kind of minority) to suffer for the good of the majority?

Oh yeah – because that’s the political philosophy his ‘core’ supporters cherish:

This, after all, is the tragedy of political decision-making: sometimes some people just have to lose and it’s up to the political decision-maker to choose which.

All politics is struggle and conflict; the sacrificing of some values and people in favour of those you prefer.

Nonsense:

Do we guarantee one-to-one tuition for children falling behind, and education and training up to 18 for all young people? Do we stop treating vocational qualifications as second class? Do we give parents more information on how local schools are performing by introducing new school report cards?

With a national shortage of teachers, the barriers to entry into the teaching profession being raised ever higher, and powerful teachers’ unions, where is the country going to find one-to-one tutors and teachers to guarantee a further two years of education to everybody? How is the country going to pay such people? How will the government force employers to consider vocational qualifications as ‘first class’? In what way is a ‘school report card’ different from a league table? How is such a thing going to make one bit of difference when most parents can’t choose their child’s school anyway? Labour have not considered these questions; these policies are plainly unfeasible.

But we would never forgive ourselves if we allowed the Tories to emerge from [the election] claiming by default a mandate for their policies to wreck our economic recovery and frontline public services.

Actually, I think the Labour party would adore to lose the next election, and see the Conservatives reap the unpopularity from the disaster Labour have sown. They will crow as the country falls to ruin and blame it entirely on Tory policy. They will campaign in four years’ time as the party who presided over boom and prosperity, hoping that everyone forgets they caused the national budget collapse, and they will absolve themselves of all responsibility for whatever pain and austerity the British people face over the course of the next five years.

Our country faces hugely important choices. And on education, the Tories have made theirs: to pursue a reckless free market experiment with the state system, and to cut the frontline schools budgets relied on by millions to give an inheritance tax cut to the wealthiest few.

Ah, all the evil keywords: reckless, free market, cut the frontline, tax cut, wealthiest few. Yes, the Tories’ Swedish plan is a reckless experiment that has worked so poorly in Sweden that, if we were to try it here, we’d have to cut inheritance tax and favour the wealthy few over the ‘millions’ of poor.

The sad thing is, Balls doesn’t seem to realise that, after twelve years of Labour education and redistribution policy, many people are still poorly educated, and most people are still ‘poor’ (i.e. not rich). Nobody was talking about one-to-one tuition twelve years ago, because there weren’t that many pupils falling behind. Nobody was talking about extending education for a further two years, because 16-year-old school leavers could still get jobs. Nobody was talking about school report cards, because parents weren’t so dreadfully dissatisfied with their local state schools. And now these things are on Ed Balls’s to-do list, not because schools have got so much better under Labour, but because they’ve got so much worse.

He says Tory policy won’t work; fair enough, maybe it won’t. But Labour policy is trying to mend the giant rents they themselves have made since 1997. And that’s not exactly a great advertisement for the Labour party.

Oct 092009
 

Working class kids are dumb.

This seems to be the view of John David Blake, who lays into the Tories’ recent statements on education with particular zeal, in ‘The Terrifying Face of Tory Education’. (‘Terrifying’! Really!) He is, as he says, a history teacher, so he knows all kinds of shit about shit.

As it happens, I too was once a history teacher, so I too know all kinds of shit about shit.

Let’s see how his shit and my shit compare, shall we?

A quick low-down on personal backgrounds first, though, since that matters a great deal to Mr Blake. He used to teach at a grammar school! *gasp*

Now, first off, a confession – probably best to get this out of the way: I spent two years working in a grammar school. Gnash your teeth if you wish…

But don’t give him too hard a time, y’all. At least grammar schools are still funded by the state, so he was earning an honest living off the toil of the taxpayer, just as every honest man should. I, on the other hand, have always worked in private, fee-paying schools, taking no penny of my salary from the taxpayer, unless perhaps indirectly by teaching the children of government employees.

You might say, actually, that Mr Blake has combined the worst of both worlds: living off the sweat of others whilst teaching only the privileged, well-behaved and brightest of the country’s children. In his eyes, one of those is a sin. Three guesses which.

But backgrounds are important to Mr Blake; a sticking point for him is that Tory education policy was dreamed up and announced by some guys who were educated in selective, sometimes expensive schools and then went on to university at Oxford – thus disqualifying them from any credibility:

Baker, Gove and Willetts seemed inordinately fixated, for a group all of whom were educated at Oxford after (respectively) public, private and grammar school educations, on the notion of “real skills”. Since “real skills” clearly aren’t currently being taught in schools (otherwise why the need for the new technical colleges?) I can’t help but wonder what the phrase actually means. Did Baker pick up no “real skills” at St Paul’s? Did Gove’s have no “real skills” as President of the Oxford Union? (part 2)

Yeah, those guys have no idea what they’re talking about. ‘Cause nobody who has ever been involved in Labour’s education policy went to selective schools (*cough*VernonCoaker*cough*) or Oxford (*cough*EdBalls*cough*KevinBrennan*cough*) or was president of the Oxford Union (*cough*MichaelFoot*cough*) or all three (*triplecough*TonyBenn*cough*).

But the ad hominem strategy was never going to be a good way to prosecute an argument, so let’s move on to Mr Blake’s problems with the policies.

First, creating new grammar schools. Mr Blake deploys the common complaint that they take away bright kids from other schools, thus depriving the dim kids of the company of their intellectual (or perhaps just hoop-jumping) superiors:

Obviously, where grammars continue to exist they cause problems (especially, say, Kent, which has an appalling record of educational achievement and has been run by the Tories since the dawn of time) – they can drain the brightest kids away from other schools, they often gobble up resources unfairly… (part 1)

I could almost buy this, except for the fact that bright kids do not exist to help dim ones, nor should we be treating them as if they ought to. ‘Brightness’ is not catching; the only benefit bright kids have for dim ones is that their general attitude toward learning and work ethic might inspire. The hope that this might happen is not a particularly good reason to keep bright kids in classes with slower learners, or more disruptive pupils, than themselves, mostly because the influence tends to flow in the other direction: weak or difficult pupils inhibit the learning experience for the bright ones far more than the bright ones enable it for the weak and disruptive. I mean, should doctors force healthy people to hang around the wards in the hope that their positive attitudes might improve the attitudes of the sick? After all, healthiness is no more catching than brightness.

As I say, I could almost buy that, except Mr Blake then carries on to say this:

…[grammar schools] generally result in a divide between middle and working class children in education (which often mirrors a racial divide).

Now, anyone may correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding of grammar schools was that they took in the bright kids irrespective of background. This was sort of the point of them: any kid bright enough, working class or no, could attend. Grammar schools divide the bright from the dim; apparently they also divide the middle class from the working class. By analogy, then, Mr Blake thinks the working class are dim. If they can’t get into grammar schools, and all you need to do to get into grammar schools is be bright, then working class kids must not be bright. Or ‘ethnic’ kids, for that matter, since grammar schools cause (?) highlight (?) a racial divide.

This attitude of Mr Blake’s is frankly insulting.

I do not think it remotely true that the working class, or the non-white, cannot benefit from grammar schools. All you have to do is be clever, and cleverness knows no class-based or racial boundaries. The problem at the moment, of course, is that there aren’t enough grammar schools to service all the bright kids. The other problem, one which is nothing to do with the education system per se, is that children from deprived backgrounds, of whatever race, tend not to be brought up in environments in which learning is prized. Either nobody bothers to tell them that education can improve their minds and lives, or they are actively discouraged by immediate peers and role models from pursuing it in the first place. Send grammar school representatives into these areas to recruit, and the class/racial divide such schools cause (?) highlight (?) will disappear. The ‘problem’ of separating the bright from the weak will persist, of course.

The only way grammar schools would become a massive issue in education again is if someone proposed building dozens of them in every local authority in England and Wales.

Which is effectively exactly what Kenneth Baker is proposing.

Hurrah for Kenneth Baker. One issue solved: there will be enough grammar schools to service the bright kids. Now just send them out to recruit.

And, incidentally, don’t include behavioural history as part of the selection process. My own experience as a teacher – and this is anecdotal of course – is that most of the behaviour problems in schools are caused by bright kids who are bored out of their fucking minds. Personalise their education, allow them to pursue their scholastic interests, and put them in small classes where they can get lots of attention from the teacher, and bingo. No more bad behaviour.

Then there are the proposed vocational diplomas:

Diplomas force children at 14 to choose between academic and vocational education – the decision to study GCSEs or Diplomas is the defining issue around which everything else is then shaped in their lives, because it determines how many other GCSEs they can do, which in turn affects what they can study at Sixth Form (can they do A-levels if they decide the diploma isn’t for them? Well, possibly, but not the “hard subjects”), which shapes what, if anything, they are able to do at university level.

This is just silly. Why the hell do we have FE colleges, if not to enable people to go back and do GCSEs and A-levels after they have done something else for a while? Education does not have to stop at age 16 or 18 if a person doesn’t want it to. What’s to stop somebody from doing a vocational diploma as a teenager, working for a while with it, then going back on their own time to do some GCSEs and ‘hard’ A-levels? Nothing.

But of course, this is not really about learning. This is about evil Tory LEAs stuffing all the ‘difficult’ kids into vocational schools where they don’t bring down the league table ranking:

[Baker] wants each local authority in the country (about 100 of them) to set up separate schools which will take children with an interest in vocational work – so popular will these schools be, said Baker, that soon local authorities will want more of them. And indeed, which local authority run (as most of them are today) by Tories wouldn’t want a school into which you can legitimately dump at 14 every difficult child in every other school in your area?

This strategy would apparently isolate kids from everybody who knows them and make sure they know their place forever:

Take them out of that environment and put them into a new school where no one knows them and everyone has an incentive to keep them just where they are for as long as possible and these children will be cut off from the higher levels of academic achievement throughout the rest of their school career at the age of 14 (and, let’s be honest, if that happens, very few of them are going to go back in their own time later in life). Worse, they will be earning qualifications which, the history of educational qualifications in Britain would suggest to us, are less likely to be highly regarded by universities or employers (the reason we have a GCSE today was because employers were only interested in the “academic” O-level not the “second-class” GCE). Students will be divided by outcome; and not the outcome of the same set or a similar of examinations, but at different qualifications entirely, within a system which is already set up to favour those who follow the traditional route.

Oh, I see: they won’t go back to school later in life, after being sequestered in the vocational schools to keep them out of the classrooms of the privileged middle class kids. They’ll, like, not go to university! Or get jobs!

Again: silly. They’ll get jobs. Maybe not hugely remunerative ones, but they’ll get them. They won’t go to university, but hey, lots of people don’t. It’s not for everybody. It helps if you want office jobs, or academic jobs, but not everybody wants those.

And if we’re being honest with ourselves, if employers insist on job candidates having GCSEs these days, it’s probably because that’s one of the few ways to confirm that an applicant is functionally literate and numerate (and even then you can’t be sure). If we had fewer problems at the pre-secondary level – if kids could definitely all read, write, and ‘rithmetic by the age of 11 – employers would likely have less of a box-ticking mentality about the GCSE.

The US model is a good one to look to: although vocational schools are few and far between, they offer the core curriculum alongside the vocational skills. Half the day is spent doing English, maths, history, and science, and the other half in the workshop. If that was done here, kids in vocational schools could get GCSEs easily. It might take them an extra year or two, but they’d have them by the age of 17 or 18.

This has nothing to do with improving education for the least well-off in society; this is about saving Home County parents from having to send their children to school where working class kids also go. That’s Kenneth Baker’s offer: build a new sink school, local authorities, and the rest of your schools will drained of the poor, the problematic and the needy. Wave goodbye to the black and the backwards, it is Grammar schools for everyone (who already votes Tory).

And your argument, Mr Blake, has nothing to do with children’s needs, despite your protestations about pastoral care and attention. It has everything to do with class warfare, in which the person who appears to hold the lowest opinion of the working class is not Kenneth Baker, but you.

Moving on, we get into the arena of ‘real skills’, which we’ve already seen Mr Blake doesn’t think well-educated Tories are fit to judge.

Leaving aside their rather optimistic faith that the only thing required to turn around our most disaffected youngsters is some time with power tools, or the fact that they were just making jobs up out of thin air (not everyone who leaves the new technical schools will be guaranteed a job unless the government starts interfering with the economy in a fashion that “David” and “George” are not going to be happy with), what we seem to be talking about here is a vision of education which relates solely to the things you can do practically at the end of it. I have real problems with this, largely because as a History teacher, I find that when people say “skills” they mean “things that will obviously make you money” rather than “things that will allow you to assess, understand and work to alter yours and other people’s place in the world”. (part 2)

So: the Tories want to fix education so that people can better themselves; Mr Blake thinks the purpose of educating a child is so that he can better other people. Who’s right?

A good education is not something that can be shared, in the sense that, once you’ve got one, you can’t siphon off a little bit to someone who hasn’t. In that respect, education is very much a selfish endeavour: you want the best possible one you can get, which will accrue to you the greatest possible benefit. But ‘benefit’ is a fairly subject value; some people feel benefited by ‘making money’, others by ‘assessing, understanding, and working to alter their and other people’s place in the world.’ But ultimately, it’s up to the individual to judge that. In fact you might say the purpose of education is to provide the individual with the critical skills necessary to make that judgment.

But the Tories just want to educate you so that you can ‘ make you money’, those evil bastards. This from the guy who was just whinging about people being ‘guaranteed a job’! Make up your mind, Mr Blake! Should they be guaranteed a job (and thus make money, how horrid), or should they assess, understand, etc? Or, perhaps, they should somehow be getting non-paying, world-altering jobs. I dunno. I’m confused. You complain that these kids won’t get jobs, but then you say education shouldn’t be focused on enabling them to make money. So somehow education should be focused on enabling them to get jobs that don’t make money. I don’t get it.

But this allows us to move into another of Mr Blake’s critiques, which is that the Tories aren’t promising jobs. Leaving aside for the moment the absurdity that anyone should be guaranteed a job (is this a new human right?), he says:

Unless someone gives building firms, engineering firms and others a great deal of money, there aren’t going to be any jobs for these young people to go to. The banks haven’t got any money, and David Cameron is ideologically opposed to government giving any money…

Excuse me, but the people who should be giving these firms ‘a great deal of money’ are their customers.

Finally, Mr Blake carries on to rail against fee discounts for university students who repay their student loans early:

…when our bright, articulate working class youngster gets to the dreaming spires, or the solid red brick, or the upcoming 1992 university, she will discover rich people will be getting their university places for cheaper than she is.

Willetts, a beaming smile on his face, guaranteed that 10,000 new university places would be provided by giving students who paid back their debts early a discount on their fees. (part 3)

I must admit, I don’t really know how this policy operates, given that the fees are paid at the set rate before the student begins to pay back his debts. Perhaps he will be given a discount on the repayment interest rate. But it was my understanding that all (English) students at all British universities pay exactly the same amount of money in tuition and fees. Getting a cheaper interest rate on your student loans hardly translates into ‘getting [your] university places for cheaper’.

Government-funded student loans represent a market failure anyway. The reason we have them is because banks don’t like to give out loans to people with no collateral who are likely to default. The government absorbs that risk via the taxpayer – but still attempts to obviate the risk by garnishing a person’s salary for repayments as soon as he ceases to be a student and gets a job.

Now, one could argue that since we want to encourage people to go to university, whether they are rich or poor, these are reasonable government policies. But surely it would be better for students to borrow from a private lender, with the state acting as guarantor, than for the state to lend the money and then garnish wages.

It was also my impression that student loans were means-tested, so this complaint is a little odd to me:

There are student now who manipulate the student loans system by taking out loans they are entitled to, sticking the money in a high interest savings account, and then getting through their university with handouts from mummy and daddy. Now, fantastically, they’ll actually get to keep not just the interest from that cash, but some of the money too. It’s like a lottery only rich people can win.

If there are ‘rich people’ getting student loans, maybe it’s time to change the way those means are tested. They do it in the US – it’s called the FAFSA. It’s pretty harsh. Even some people who are low on means indeed have trouble getting government aid. Of course, they take a different view of paying for university in the US; grants are swell, loans are tolerable, but if you expect to go to uni for fucking free you’d better get a scholarship. Most American university students I knew worked at least part-time throughout their course (including me). British university students appear to take their government money, pay their rent, and spend the rest on beer. There is no shame in tending bar or waiting tables whilst studying – and I’m sure many British uni students do – but give me a break. If the government is stupid enough to give you a loan you don’t need, and you stick it in the bank to collect interest, good for you. The fact that not everybody can do that is no reason to start bitching.

Meanwhile, those students who do have to pay something but really need the loans face the prospect of not claiming their discount. But, you cry, presumably they can go into high paid jobs? Then they can pay it back faster. Well, possibly … although one would think the Milk Round is going to be a little curdled for a while, and besides, why should the decision to enter teaching, or medicine, or nursing, not be a reason for a discount on your fees, whilst a decision to enter banking or corporate law saves you money? It is an absolutely naked piece of government welfare to the class from which all three of these men, and their leader and their shadow chancellor, are drawn.

The government has every reason to incentivise people to go into high-paying jobs. That lovely welfare Mr Blake and Don Paskini like so much doesn’t come cheap – it requires money. To put it bluntly, for every graduate who pays off his loans early by getting a high-paying job, the government expects to soak him for the maximum possible tax and National Insurance contributions. These people are the wealth creators (well, not from lawyers, obvi), and government can hardly hand out generous welfare without access to some, y’know, wealth. Doctors, nurses, and teachers are not wealth creators; they are at best wealth enablers, ensuring that people are healthy and knowledgeable enough to go out and create some; they are at worst wealth drainers, as some teachers especially are so bad at it that they simply suck up taxpayers’ money without even giving their kids some decent book-learnin’.

But as it happens, this is kind of something I agree with Mr Blake about. If the government is going to mandate the same tuition fees at East Buddhafuck Polytechnic as at Oxford (’cause to do otherwise would just be another example of the Tories fucking over the poor kids by making only crappy universities affordable to them), then the amount the students are made to pay back should be the same across the board, too.

On the other hand, the policy doesn’t really sound to me like aid for the Tory class. Mr Blake spends a bit of time pointing out that they don’t have any ‘real skills’ because they’ve worked in politics and its subsidiaries all their adult lives. From what I’ve heard, that career path doesn’t pay very well until you claw your way up the ladder. Conversely, lots of normal (read: non-toffs) people leave university to get productive jobs, found companies, etc. ‘Discounts’ for those who go into the paid professions, rather than the work-for-peanuts ass-kissing professions, seems to me like it might help working-class graduates rather than hurt them.

But as Mr Blake reminds us, this isn’t about class warfare, despite the fact that he thinks working-class kids are stupid, badly-behaved, and likely to go into low-wage jobs if they manage to get as far as university:

And what [Cameron’s] men are is spivs. Men on the make. Bright, articulate, desperate for power, uncaring of how they get it, and determined to look out for their own. They don’t give a damn about you or anyone like you, and for ten years that total indifference to the real concerns of the British people kept them out of power. But they’ve worked it out at last: they’ve dressed their education policy up, like their health and benefits policy, as the reforms for working people Labour never gave you.

Hmm. Change a couple of words, and that paragraph would read:

And what Brown’s men are is spivs. Men on the make. Bright, articulate, desperate to cling onto power, uncaring of how they do it, and determined to look out for their own. They don’t give a damn about you or anyone like you, and for ten years that total indifference to the real concerns of the British people has been demonstrated whilst they’ve been in power. But they’ve worked it out at last: they’ve dressed their education policy up, like their health and benefits policy, as the reforms for working people the Conservatives would never give you.

This is obviously not about the substance of the Tories’ proposed educational reforms; it’s about the Tories themselves. And why should the voter give a good goddamn where the Tory leadership went to school thirty years ago? All a voter should care about is whether the policies will work. I don’t think they will; they’re so milquetoast that I doubt they’ll have any effect if enacted. Cameron’s men aren’t being radical enough.

This is about hatred for the Tories, in their incarnation of The Privileged, and finding every way possible to insinuate that they’ve got it in for people who aren’t like them. To what end, I ask you, would they do this? Is it really in the Tories’ interests to foster an ill-educated, poverty-stricken underclass who would (a) simply have to be supported on benefits anyway, and (b) never ever vote again for the party that robbed them of all chance at social mobility? Perhaps Mr Blake thinks this is just the beginning, and eventually the Tories will strip away the benefits too, so that everybody who’s ‘not like them’ will starve to death, thus ridding the country of an inconvenient burden?

I’m sure Mr Blake doesn’t actually think that. What he also doesn’t think is what has actually happened: that social mobility has worsened under Labour, educational achievement has worsened under Labour, and enough people realise this that they’re likely to vote for the very party that supposedly fucked everybody over back in the eighties.

Finally, Mr Blake is invoking the kind of political cant that was the standard 25 years ago. Is he appealing to new voters, young voters, the very people who would be most affected by some of these policies? No – a voter turning eighteen next spring will have been born in 1992. Too young to remember how evil the Tories were. Too young to know anything but thirteen years of Labour government. The only people these days for whom ‘toffs! class warfare!’ is going to work as an electoral rallying cry are the ones who were bitching and moaning around the place in 1984 and who think all Tories are exactly like Margaret Thatcher, despite the fact she’s been out of power for twenty years.

If you want people to take your criticisms seriously, Mr Blake, then make some serious criticisms. Don’t stand or fall on the ancient reputation of the Conservative party and a bunch condescending remarks about how haaaaard everything is for the, by your implication, stupid and unemployable working class.

Sep 082009
 

Continuing with the recent philosophy that learning has to be justified by national utility, President Obama gave a televised speech this morning aimed at schoolchildren. Most classrooms in American schools have television sets (books? why are you asking about books? this is multi-media learning), and so I reckon, though I cannot be sure, that all state schools were required to show this broadcast, on what is for many children their first day of the school year.

As a teacher, I cannot over-emphasise what a massive pain in the backside I would have found it to spend even fifteen minutes of precious class time on frivolous speeches. The curriculum is too vast, and the school year too short in comparison, to give up even a moment of it. For purposes of comparison, consider that, four years ago when Pope John Paul II died, I was a Catholic teaching in a Catholic school and I still resented the single day the school closed for mourning.

But Obama’s speech was not simply frivolous; it was a collection of egotistical bromides couched in terms no child could fail to understand: if you don’t do well in school, you’ll never have a comfortable life, and the nation will be doomed. How do you mean, egotistical, I hear you ask?

I know that feeling. When I was young, my family lived in Indonesia for a few years, and my mother didn’t have the money to send me where all the American kids went to school. So she decided to teach me extra lessons herself, Monday through Friday – at 4:30 in the morning.

Now I wasn’t too happy about getting up that early. A lot of times, I’d fall asleep right there at the kitchen table. But whenever I’d complain, my mother would just give me one of those looks and say, “This is no picnic for me either, buster.”

I get it. I know what that’s like. My father left my family when I was two years old, and I was raised by a single mother who struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn’t always able to give us things the other kids had. There were times when I missed having a father in my life. There were times when I was lonely and felt like I didn’t fit in.

So I wasn’t always as focused as I should have been. I did some things I’m not proud of, and got in more trouble than I should have. And my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse.

But I was fortunate. I got a lot of second chances and had the opportunity to go to college, and law school, and follow my dreams. My wife, our First Lady Michelle Obama, has a similar story. Neither of her parents had gone to college, and they didn’t have much. But they worked hard, and she worked hard, so that she could go to the best schools in this country.

‘I, I, I. I’m you, American schoolchildren. I’m Everyman.’

Except that, of course, if you’re a kid, you’re thinking hmm. The president is telling me he goofed off and got in trouble and wasted time, and yet he still became the president. So clearly there’s no penalty.

And Obama puts the weight of a huge responsibility on these children’s shoulders. They’re not to have an education so they can be open-minded, well-rounded, happy people, oh no. They’re to have it so they can be of economic and civic benefit to the country:

And no matter what you want to do with your life – I guarantee that you’ll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You’re going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.

And this isn’t just important for your own life and your own future. What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.

You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You’ll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.

We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.

So today, I want to ask you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in twenty or fifty or one hundred years say about what all of you did for this country?

‘Your mind exists to serve others. Your talents exist to serve others. Your achievements will go toward serving others. Because the absolute height of existence, the pinnacle of morality, the one necessary and sufficient incentive any human has or should have, is to serve others.’

There is a lot of talk about not ‘quitting on yourself’ in this speech, but no definition, unless it’s that quitting on yourself means you won’t be able to make money (lawyer, architect) or devote yourself to other people’s welfare (doctor, nurse, police officer, scientist, teacher, soldier, job-creator). I’m not saying he’s wrong – it’d be difficult to do any of those things without an education – but there is no talk of the personal satisfaction of setting goals and achieving them; the rewarding of curiosity; the simple joy of learning a skill and putting it to use, whatever the skill, whatever the use; the opening of the mind to ways of finding pleasure in any activity or experience. There is no focus in this speech on how you can use what you learn to give your life meaning – there is only offered the prospect of future usefulness.

And Obama is a bit out of touch with the heroes of today’s youth:

Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, “I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

As much as I might find Michael Jordan impressive, he is not even a hero of my youth, seeing as he had retired from basketball before I left high school. He also – let’s face it – is not really the poster child for education; he dropped out of university to play professional basketball and finished his BA in tiny chunks in the years thereafter, finally ending up with a degree in geography. Funnily enough, this little nugget about Jordan’s perseverance comes right after the part in the speech where Obama says:

I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work — that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things.

Kids are not stupid. They will perceive the contradiction. On the one hand, Obama tells them they’re unlikely to succeed in those professions where an education is not necessary. On the other hand, he uses as an example of success and a role model one of the very people who did just that. Hmm.

That said, Obama does offer one piece of good sense:

No one’s born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work. You’re not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don’t hit every note the first time you sing a song. You’ve got to practice. It’s the same with your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it’s good enough to hand in.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don’t know something, and to learn something new.

Unfortunately, he follows it with this:

And even when you’re struggling, even when you’re discouraged, and you feel like other people have given up on you – don’t ever give up on yourself. Because when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country.

The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.

Argh.

Jul 012009
 

Warning: this post contains self-indulgent moping.

In the last 24 hours, I seem to have dropped into a deep, bleak trough of depression, brought on by leaving my job and all the lovely people I work with, the fact that my immigration problems are still not sorted out, and the realisation that for all intents and purposes, life as I know it ends on 23 July, as I cannot see or plan what I will be doing or where I will be doing it or how I shall be making my living or whom I will be associating with beyond that date.

Tiny, petty things that normally do not affect me are being extrapolated in my brain into huge, paranoid dooms, from silly little incidents in my personal life all the way through to why today’s lunch plans have gone awry.

I was going to post today about Ed Balls’s announcement of licensing teachers, complete with ominous suggestion that said licences will be granted on how well a teacher complies with the prevailing educational ethos – Tim Worstall points out something I thought of immediately, which is that this plan is probably going to sneak in a PGCE requirement through the back door since the independent schools made such an outcry last year when compulsory PGCEs for all teachers were mooted – but I honestly couldn’t be arsed.

I’ve also been working up a gigantic treatise on another, rather broader, metaphysical political sort of thing, but I can’t be arsed to do that either.

Instead, I’ve been fantasising about how nice it would be if we could take holidays from our own brains the way we can from our jobs.

Jun 092009
 

A commenter at the Devil’s Kitchen, who obviously couldn’t be bothered follow the link over here to leave his correction, says:

I appreciate your position, but Bella’s interpretation of Protocol 1 Article 2 of the ECHR (which she calls a ‘charter’) (and thus the Human Rights Act) is incorrect- and I wouldn’t want you to be misinformed by it (and I’m not suggesting that it is).

It is actually a reinforcement of a negative right, rather than a positive – ensuring that citizens have a right not to be denied an education. It certainly doesn’t compel subscribing states to provide an education.

The protocol doesn’t provide for “the right to an education”, nor does the Human Rights Act itself.

On the issue of healthcare , the convention doesn’t even mention the subject, so that straw man is knocked down. Only health is mentioned in the context of public authorities not interfering with the rights set out by the convention except for where the protection of health requires it.

He is right; I was thinking of, not the European Convention on Human Rights, but the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says amongst other things (emphasis mine):

Article 22
Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.

Article 25
(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Article 26
(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages Elementary education shall be compulsory Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

And so I stand corrected.

May 112009
 

An aside by Leg-Iron sparked off the frothing spite this morning:

Ordinary people who, as any wander along any street will demonstrate, are mostly idiots who will believe any damn thing they’re told. I have convinced several people that the Romans built straight roads because they hadn’t invented steering. There are people out there now who believe it and who are probably spreading it. When it ends up on your child’s history curriculum, that was me. Sorry about that.

He’s talking about the evidence for ‘third hand smoke,’ which apparently consists of a public survey of idiots; but my immediate reaction was: ‘Ha! They don’t teach the Romans in the history curriculum.’

I’m wrong, of course; the Roman influence in Britain is there, bold as brass, in the national curriculum (provided the teacher chooses to teach the Romans rather than the possible alternatives of Anglo-Saxons or Vikings):

9. An overview study of how British society was shaped by the movement and settlement of different peoples in the period before the Norman Conquest and an in-depth study of how British society was affected by Roman or Anglo-Saxon or Viking settlement.

This is at Key Stage 2 (primary school), fertile ground in which to introduce the ‘Romans hadn’t invented steering’ theory pioneered by Leg-Iron. The tinies won’t know geometry, of course, so this’ll make perfect sense.

Perhaps the curriculum can also include such facts as ‘the Romans counted backward’ and ‘everyone before Columbus thought the Earth was flat.’

When LPUK take over the nation, as surely they must do and soon, I’m putting in my bid to be Ed Balls…