As I walked out

A recent conjunction of news stories started me thinking, and this post is the result of that process.  Given the subject matter, it may be slightly less comic than usual (then again, perhaps I over-estimate the usual degree of comic content).

Sections of the media, and broader establishment, spend much of their time trying to find new things with which to terrify us.  The ongoing Manichean project to take every word in the language and decide whether its subject either does or does not cause cancer continues unabated as does the important work to prevent woman from acquiring an excess of self-esteem.  However, much of their important work is to ensure that those over the age of 30 (say) remain terrified of the young.  (I would like to point out to my fellow over-30s, that it will be the young who will be funding our pensions and/or putting us into a home, so perhaps we could think about treating them a little better).  Much of this fear-mongering urges us to see them as “feral” creatures who indulge in every depravity – so unlike our own tender years when even hardened criminals would swoon at the sight of an uncovered table leg.  As a result, we must be constantly protected from them and they must be protected from the real world, while the system prepares them for life in the 1870s (or maybe that is only Mr Gove’s plan).  I have met a few young people (though not a properly randomised sample) and they generally strike me as rather impressive and far more adult than I was at their age (or am now for that matter).  As noted before, I have rather more faith in their ability to run the country than the current incumbents – though admittedly, they are setting the bar pretty low (as did their predecessors).

The latest scare is that our young people will become “radicalised” – though if the young don’t become radical I’m not sure who will.  I recognise that there are concerns here, the young will sometimes lack the life experience to recognise that the information they are being fed is very partisan, mis-leading or untrue – though, I would note that this is true for the rest of us as well (if you are in any doubt, can I recommend Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre as a useful corrective).  The current worry is about young people (mostly Muslim I assume) going off to Syria to help one of the groups fighting against the totalitarian regime there.

As this news story has been rumbling on, we have also been celebrating the centenary of the birth of Laurie Lee.  He was a big noise with English teachers when I was at school, though may be rather frowned upon now in the Govian state (not sure he is entirely sound on how great war is).  This reminded me (via As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning) of the young men who left the country in the mid-1930s to go and support the forces fighting against the fascist regime of General Franco in Spain.  I suppose these men had the “advantage” of white skin and being (at least nominally) Christian, but I do wonder how the newspapers of the day reported their behaviour.  Given its enthusiastic support for Fascism and the Nazis, I assume the Daily Mail’s editorial stance was much as now.  I may be drawing an inappropriate parallel between two very different sets of circumstances – and I’m not sure if any great writing or poetry has emerged from Syria yet – but idealistic young men going to support a cause in which the believe and oppose tyranny does suggest at least some parallels exist.  (BTW, I freely admit to being an authority on neither the current situation in Syria nor the Spanish Civil War).

Our leaders seem very keen on educating the young, to the extent of making them pay for it and denying them benefits if they don’t keep it up.  At the same time, it seems to care very little what happens to these educated young people once they leave the system – well, as long as they don’t cost the tax-payer any money.  The educated, idealistic young are an enormously powerful resource – if society is unable or unwilling to find an outlet for their energies, then someone or something else will (even if that is a life of crime or hedonistic nihilism).  Civil society is a fragile construct – very hard to build and very easy to break and we seem to be doing a worryingly good job of disenfranchising the young (who, let’s face it, could take the rest of us in a fight – though our low animal cunning and willingness to cheat would partly counteract their youth and vitality) – even without the help of multi-millionaires with back-combed hair.

The young need a stake in society – and hopefully not one driven through its heart at midnight.  They are (inevitably) a product of society rather than its cause.  So, when looking for scapegoats to shoulder the blame for society’s ills, I think we need to look rather further up the age curve to those creating the conditions under which they young have grown up.

And here endeth the sermon.  Normal, more frivolous service will (probably) be restored.

Notes on (many) a scandal

Scandals do seem terribly important in the world – without them the media would have to fall back on celebrity trivia, the voluminous output of the world’s PR machine and speculation for even more of their “news” content than is already the case

The media have themselves been rather mired in scandal of late which has allowed politicians, an unsavoury group that the fourth estate is supposed to keep in check, to gain the upper hand.  I’m not sure this is terribly healthy in a democracy – I was under the impression that a free press was quite an important element of maintaining a nominally free society. I’m not at all clear what this new Royal Charter is supposed to achieve – other than as a piece of political mis-direction – as all the recent press naughtiness it is supposed to prevent already seems to be covered by existing (if unenforced) laws.  Perhaps the money and time might have been better invested in improving enforcement of existing statutes rather than creating new ones not to enforce.

The press and politicos regularly come very low in measures of public trust – probably somewhere around the estate agent and second-hand car salesman of popular stereotype.  Rather than doing anything which might improve their standing, their main response seems to be to try and degrade public faith in much more popular and better trusted organisations (I’m sure attacks on Judi Dench and Stephen Fry can’t be far off).  I guess this is on the same principle that if you want to appear thinner, rather than losing weight you could save yourself effort by just hanging around with much fatter people.

Frequent targets for such attempts at public degradation would seem to be the Police, the BBC, the NHS and schools.  All have the major disadvantage that they are large, highly visible organisations heavily beholden to government (so are limited in how much they can fight back) and which have been used as political footballs for a very long time.  Being large organisations they make mistakes, sometimes terrible mistakes, as all large organisations do – but rarely receive huge bailouts using public funds in response as, to take but one example, the banks did in the not so distant past.  In common with most large organisations, they are all pretty dreadful at dealing with mistakes after they have been discovered – we don’t have to look far to see large private corporations with very well-funded PR departments making similar or worse messes.  I will, however, admit to frank amazement at how few corporate sex scandals dating back to the 1970s or 80s have yet surfaced which would suggest that some damage limitation is working very effectively (or is it just the lack of a celebrity angle preventing traction in the media?).

Many of the errors made by the public entities I have mentioned relate to, or are exacerbated by, the organisation tending to close ranks to protect apparent (or, indeed, actual) wrong doers.  Given the record of almost continuous attacks by both government and the press on these organisations for at least the 30 years when I have been (in age terms at least) an adult, this tendency to defensiveness is not so very surprising.  I have lost count of the number of major revolutions our schools and hospitals have been subjected to over the last couple of decades – any country or company treated this way would have been utterly destroyed by such treatment, but somehow education and the NHS struggle on surprisingly well.

Clearly, large publicly funded organisation require oversight – and this is, I believe, a role our elected representatives are supposed to fulfil.  However, this role seems rather incompatible with a number of other interactions between the overseers and the overseen:

  • the tendency of our representatives to use them as guinea pigs for any pet theory being hatched in the fevered mind of a cabinet minister (or his – or very rarely her – inconceivably highly-paid and unelected “advisers”);
  • their convenient status as a diversion from inconvenient political realities when the “bread-and-circuses” of celebrity tittle-tattle seems in danger of failing to placate the plebeian hordes; and
  • their role as a convenient source of savings or spending (delete as appropriate) to attract the floating voter in a very small number of marginal constituencies to allow our representatives to return to the Westminster gravy train.

Perhaps we need an apolitical elected body for such oversight, which might also be able to train its gimlet stare on the politically elected and the press?  The omens are not good, recent(ish) elections for the rather nebulous role of police commissioner were fully hijacked by the existing political lobbies and largely ignored by a disenchanted electorate.  How does one make electing an auditor seem worthwhile whilst keeping those already in power (or with hopes of quickly returning thereto) well away from it?  (Audit is always a tough sell, the role being likened to those that go around after a battle to stab the wounded).  Clearly we do not want to end up with the US system which, on recent showing, seems even worse than our own.  I’m open to ideas – or failing that, does anyone have Mary Warnock’s contact details?  She has a good track record in tackling very thorny issues as I was recently reminded by Lisa Jardine on A Point of View (discussing, as it transpires, an important issue unable to gain any attention from a scandal and celebrity-obsessed press).

Fighting yesterday’s battles

I think one of the problems with governments is that they feel the need to govern.  This leaves them with the idea that they should be doing something, should always be busy legislating away.  This is a great way to spend money – which otherwise might have to be used to support worthy causes – and keeps our struggling management consultancy and legal sectors going in these difficult times.  Not so sure it’s doing much for the fortunes of UK plc, or its citizens…

Today, Michael Gove – who frankly could do with a time-consuming hobby – has announced yet more changes to our education system.  He seems keen on students learning the 12 times table (as I did, though in my case this was probably still a residual memory of pounds, shillings and pence at play) and learning “facts”.  He also seems keen that all knowledge is assessed by carrying out one-off tests in June.  I have much sympathy with this approach as it matches my own upbringing (I am of a similar age to Mr Gove) and I was always very good at regurgitating facts (and still am given half a chance).  I particularly like the idea of having to learn some poetry by heart – I never really got to do this, and feel it might come in handy (though would be a lot less impressive if lots of young people can do it too).  Unlike Mr Gove, I don’t necessarily think it is a good plan to inflict my ill-thought out gut-reactions on a generation of this country’s children.

As with so much government policy, I feel that Mr G is preparing our children for life in the 1980s – and unless he is also working on some major advances in temporal engineering this is a decade they are unlikely to experience first hand.  I would suggest that knowledge of a barrage of facts historical (even should they be in order categorical) has never had less value than it does today (unless his plan is that the UK’s fortunes will be restored by winning pub quizzes across the world).  Any self-respecting young person can find facts in the twinkling of a smart phone, though sadly these facts may be hiding needle-like in a haystack of dis-information.  What we should probably be teaching the young to do is to separate facts from plausible and partisan fictions – though such skills may not appeal much to a politician.  I can’t imagine that knowing the data of the Battle of Waterloo is going to help much in the international job market of 2020 or 2030 – though some overview of the chronology of world history and how to understand why things happen might be.

I’m also not wholly convinced about the value of the 12 times table,: I’m a big fan of mental arithmetic, but to be honest kids would be better of learning the tricks (and cheats) of how to do this than pfaffing around with multiples of 12 (now, 16 I could understand as this has some use via hexadecimal).  I was a terrible show-off at school (and not much has changed) and learned the 13 times table – but rarely have to move beyond the 10 times table in real life as low animal cunning avoids one having to use anything higher.

I think, in general, beyond the ability to use English to communicate successfully and to understand mathematics sufficiently to know when one is being conned (as one will be on a daily basis – either intentionally or through the ignorance of others), any other skills are nice to have and could come from anywhere in the vast smorgasbord of knowledge that exists.  Education should act to pass on the joy of learning, teaching how to find out information and how to generalise and extrapolate from what you already know (and how not to!).  I’d also suggest any learning relating to the creativity or the arts might be a good bet – I suspect that even by 2030 these skills will not have been supplanted by computers and, if we manage to retain any culture of our own, might still be a valuable export (as they are today).  However, I suspect we shouldn’t be too prescriptive, we should perhaps let a thousands flowers bloom and hope some of them make sense later rather than sticking all of our eggs into rather a small basket.

This is not the only area where current government policy seems to be pandering to my prejudices – it really is the right time to be forty-something.  Despite the occasional dodgy experience, I am a big fan of the railways and have always been impressed by heavy engineering and fast trains.  As a result, HS2 would seem to be tailored to tick all my boxes (which is fine between consenting adults in the privacy of their own home).  However, with mature reflection it might perhaps not seem like quite such a great idea.  I believe it will knock 30 minutes off the journey time from London and Birmingham (and presumably the other way as well), but won’t be doing this until the 2030s.  Given that it is already quite possible to work very successfully on the train – Virgin has enviably reliable wifi, if rather iffy mobile reception on its trains – what is the business person gaining after this very long wait?  Wouldn’t they rather have a decent, reliable service today?  Will people still need to travel for business meetings in the 2030s?  Once again, this strikes me as an investment that if made in the 1980s would be of huge benefit to the UK today – but I have my doubts about how valuable it will be in 20 years time.  I think I would make a similar argument about expanding London’s airports – we are once again solving yesterday’s problems but with a delivery time in the rather distant future.

A final current example might be the willingness to throw money at EDF in the hope they will build a nuclear power station in the UK.  As recent news has shown, we are likely to suffer a shortage of power in the next five years – but sadly a new nuclear power station is unlikely to arrive until the mid 2020s.  Much of the money invested will, presumably wind up in France, so this seems to be an infrastructure project to boost the flagging French economy and to deliver a solution to the UK a good five years after the problem (is anyone else thinking of aircraft-free aircraft carriers?).  Now, if we’d done this 10 years ago we’d be sitting pretty with plenty of low carbon generation to meet our electricity needs: once again, fighting yesterday’s battles.

I’m all for investing in our young people and our infrastructure – but perhaps short-term, less prescriptive objectives might be a better route to a successful tomorrow?  Neither governments (of any political persuasion or nationality) nor major corporations have proved even remotely adept at predicting what will be relevant 20 years in the future.  Nor have either proved all that good at delivering very large projects on time or budget (or even anywhere Ryanair would be willing to land and claim was close).  So, perhaps we should favour policies which spread our eggs across a lot more (lower cost) baskets.  After all, it is an awful lot of our money they are betting on these horses – they could at least try an each-way bet, surely?


Testing Times

The testing of our children and young people is a popular topic for discussion by the media and intervention from our rulers.  I have always assumed that this is because everyone (or almost everyone) has had the experience of being educated (even if for some of us, it lies in the distant past) and so we all feel that we have a valuable contribution to make to the debate.  As this post will show, I am (apparently) no different.

Over the last week, the examinations we inflict on those in their teens have once again been in the news.  Firstly, the Education Secretary seems keen that we re-instate the O-level (I’m not clear if he also favours the return of the CSE – or just plans to write off those that are slightly less academically inclined at 14 to save time later).  This appears to be on the basis that exams are becoming easier: an idea that is trotted out every few weeks, and usually without the bodyguard of evidence which might have been anticipated (if only by the inveterate optimist).  As a chap of more advanced years, and who took – and passed – a frankly ridiculous number of O-levels, I would quite like to believe that we had it tough in my day.  However, as a chap who also spent a little time (but almost certainly more than Mr Gove) working in evidence-based research on education this is quite hard to demonstrate.  The evidence is rather confounded by the switch to both continuous assessment and modular examination from an approach based purely on final examination.  I ought to declare an interest here, as I owe a lot of what I like to call my success to being able to recall information on various days in June during the 1980s.  Nevertheless, I suspect that real life works rather more on the basis of continuous assessment (though come the Day of Judgment I may be proven wrong) – though, as I’ve said before, a good memory can be quite handy too as it is often mistaken for intelligence or thought.  The switch to modular examination means that far fewer exams are either failed or completed with poor marks than in days of yore, as students rarely carry onto the final examination stage if the earlier modules went badly.  This would tend to increase average marks, even if the exams had remained exactly as difficult as before.  I suppose the difficulty of making comparisons might explain why folks rarely bother to provide evidence for their viewpoint but (presumably) rely on faith, which means that rather more of our education system is using faith-based schools than the official statistics would suggest.

The desire for soi-disant harder exams, often goes hand-in-glove with a desire for such revolutionary Victorian ideas as learning more dates in history (other dried fruit did exist in the past) and memorising poems.  These ideas tend to be pushed by folks with a Y-chromosome, which I think smacks of self-interest.  As a fella myself, I’m pretty sure that men feel they have the edge when it comes to collecting and obsessing over lists of facts: be they football results, the combat effectiveness of chaos marines or details of rolling stock.  The approach can be useful, particularly in a pub quiz, and a few dates with a bit of basic chronology does help give events in the past a little context.  Personally, I think it would be quite nice if I knew a little more poetry off-by-heart (though the people I chose to recite it to may be rather less grateful).  Then again, as I managed to waste a fair chunk of Sunday evening reading about Isaiah Berlin’s thoughts on positive and negative freedom – not for work, nor even the OU, but just out of curiosity having encountered a tiny fragment of the topic on the web – I may not be the best person to ask.  I suspect, in general, the need to squirrel away loads of “facts” in the brain is far less relevant now than when I was a boy, given how much easier it now is to look things up (though it is also far easier to find things only masquerading as facts).  In these modern times, perhaps the study of history is best seen as a method to understand the human world and how it came to be this way and how to evaluate the usefulness of different sources of information.  Perhaps by understanding history, rather than memorising when it happened, we might be slightly less prone to repeating it?

Those not suited for these new harder exams are, at best, pushed at vocational qualifications.  The government, spurred on by “business” (whoever they might be), always seems very keen on vocational qualifications – and on specifying what they should be.  Unfortunately, the choices foisted on the young are generally for the vocations wanted today (or more often yesterday) and fail to recognise that needs might have changed by the time they actually acquire the qualification a few years down the line.  This is where I feel education triumphs over training: a decent education should equip one to cope with a whole range of possible futures, whereas training can leave one ready only for a “future” that no longer exists.

The final, current news item in this field is the story that exam boards are competing for students by dumbing-down their exams.  Perhaps not hugely surprising as students, teachers and schools are all led to believe that their futures depend on obtaining high marks at examination.  Even less of a shock when you know that exam boards are here to make a profit and so compete for entries.  We appear to have a system where it is in everyone’s interest (except the nation as a whole or those with an interest in learning) for the exams to be as easy as possible.  I wonder who can have created such a system?  I rather think it may have been previous Secretaries of State for Education acting on faith rather than evidence.  It is good to know that such a successful approach from the past continues to inform policy today (does sarcasm work in print?  Should it have its own font?).  I’m beginning to think Mr Gove might have a point about the poor quality of teaching (particularly in history and mathematics): though as he is my age (OK, marginally younger – but I’m much better preserved), it would appear his criticisms should be aimed at the system of O-levels and the old Exam Boards rather than at GCSEs!  The GCSE generation have yet to have their opportunity to wreck the education system with initiatives from above, so the jury will have to remain out for now…

Back to school

Last Saturday I took the next step in my cunning plan to become an expert on The Arts: Past and Present (sadly, the Open University is unwilling to offer me mastery of The Arts: Future – or not at this level and/or cost) and attended my first Day School.  This very much does what it says on the tin, in that it lasted the whole day (OK, 10:30 to 16:00 – but that counts as a long day for me) and it took place in a school (OK, a very highly rated sixth form college).  School does seem to have gone rather upmarket since I last attended, though the chair technology seems to have moved forward not one jot.  It is an oft quoted “fact” that back pain costs this nation a fortune in lost working hours each year: perhaps a modest investment in more lumbar-friendly seating for our young folk would be a wise one.

But, I seem to have divagated from my point somewhat (and we can thank my OU course for that rather handy piece of new vocabulary).  I spent a fair chunk of the day in a room that was dedicated to PE (Physical Education).  In my day, this would have involved parquet flooring, bars, mats and an unwanted requirement to engage in coordinated, physical activity – but this room had desks, chairs and a fair volume of IT equipment and, as a result, no room for anything terribly strenuous.  If PE had been more like this in the seventies, I might have taken more of an interest and who knows what sporting prowess I might have achieved.  This room also introduced me to the East Anglian pastime of dwile flonking (its name was pasted to one of the notice boards around the room, along with the names of more familiar sporting activities).  Strangely, this sport was not on the curriculum in my day – but sounds a great deal more fun than those that were, and could well be one of the few in which the UK still leads the world.

The day itself was divided into four sessions, and an introduction.  Regular readers will be pleased to know that I only attended three of the sessions (I don’t want to seem too needy): the lunch break provided was insufficient for anything other than sandwiches, and after two trips to Woking for the day job in the preceding week I’d had enough of John Montagu’s invention.  Added to this, the 6th form college was next door to a restaurant that had received very positive reviews and which I’ve been intending to visit for some time, so the Dalai Lama didn’t stand a chance.

The day (well the 7/9ths I attended) was enormous fun and it was good to meet a wider selection of my fellow students.  The feedback forms seemed to suggest the day was wholly designed to help us with our next assignment (sadly, it seems that all education – even the elective – is now skewed at passing exams rather than learning anything) at which it was only mildly successful, I’d suggest they should be seeking feedback on a wider range of outcomes from the day.

Talking of assignments, this week also brought the marks for my second assignment (TMA02)- which was basically re-writing the weaker half of the first assignment and reflecting on the comments that had been made thereon.  Once again, the author received very good marks – even better than TMA01 – yes, as before this post is just an excuse to boast about my incondign mastery of the art of essay writing.  This weekend, I need to start work on TMA03 and I’m starting to experience performance anxiety.  All these decent marks are creating a rod for my own back: do I have anything worthwhile to say about the Dalai Lama and Plato’s Meno?  Will I come to I regret my lotus-eating last Saturday lunch-time?  I’m not feeling much love from the muse at the moment, so I may just have to stop procrastinating and hope that 90% perspiration will either (a) be enough or (b) act as a spur to at least a few percent of inspiration.  Sadly, unlike Mr Edison I don’t have a large team whose combination of sweat and innovation I can claim as my own.