Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Student Entitlement

I found this link on Guido and it is utterly incredible.  Completely beyond parody. There are students out there who seriously think that their plight is comparable to that of starving African kids.  The whole group of them dreamt up the idea, booked the recording studio, wrote the lyrics, got all the mates involved - without anyone at any point realising what a tone deaf idea it was.





As for the heart rending refrain: "Don't they know we can't afford to pay?" they do, which is why you don't have to pay back until you're earning more than 21k - and going on the evidence of this, more is the pity.  Perhaps a genuinely punitive US style system of fees and debts really might put kids off spending three years mucking about with their mates making films no one will watch.  As it is, their vision of empty lecture halls and empty recording studios will remain sadly unrealised - not that of course any of them will apologise for their scare tactics when this turns out to be the case. 

Monday, 29 November 2010

Squeezed Middle and Mondeo Man

The Resolution Foundation have an interesting and well-defined (might want to have a look, Ed) paper on low to middle earners, or the squeezed middle.

However, they also want to claim that these low to middle earners are 'overlooked' and Our Kingdom and some other commenters want to claim that 'The Foundation has identified a group of over 11 million adults who seem to have fallen off the political radar.'

Really? On the contrary, aren't these the most fought over demographic out there, the aspirational working class new town dwellers who tend to live in marginal constituencies and whose votes determine elections? What's the difference between this concept of 'low to middle earners' and Mondeo Man?

Democracy and basic maths

Here's this weird argument I am hearing again and again that somehow, the current student riots are 'democratic' and the government are 'undemocratic'.So we have a poster on Labour List claiming that the government ' lacks democratic legitimacy ' which is funny because 59% of people voted for parties in the coalition and only 35% for the previous Labour government and I never heard anyone on Labour List call that government into question, even after Brown took over without an election.

Of course, this claim is made on the basis of the two parties not carrying out every detail in their manifesto - again, it's a coalition which entails compromise, and it's odd that it's the Lib Dems who get the flak for abandoning tuition fees whereas the Tories don't seem to be getting any flak for abandoning their inheritance tax proposals. And again, both parties have a very good reason for this - the coalition - whereas Labour's failure to enact a good number of their 97 manifesto proposals have nothing like the same justification, given they had a solid mandate from the voters to enact everything in it.

But apparently, regardless of all this, the government is undemocratic and the true keepers of the flame of democracy are...you guessed it, the NUS.

Direct action that is democratically conducted and organised by a mass movement can be empowering and liberating...the real challenge to this government comes from democracy and people taking control of their own lives in resisting this government's ideologically driven attacks.
Hmmm. Let's consider this. 77% of voters voted for parties who wanted to implement Browne.  That suggests there was a fairly strong democratic mandate to adopt it.  Let's also consider how many people are on the streets protesting. The first student protest was the largest and attracted 50,000 people.  Out of an electorate of 45 million people, that's just over 0.1%. Even if we accept that for every person who marches, 10 others felt the same but couldn't be bothered, that's still only just over 1% of the UK electorate. If we consider that a lot of the people marching were under 18, and either subtract them or therefore work it out as a percentage of the UK population, not just electorate, the percentage is even smaller. To put it into perspective, ONE HUNDRED TIMES as many people marched against the Iraq war.  ELEVEN TIMES as many people voted for the BNP in May.  I once worked in an area where I am pretty sure there were 50,000 people who would have marched on Parliament to get rid of all foreigners if they thought they had a chance of success. Is that democracy? What are these people on Labour List suggesting? That if 50,000 people march on an issue, the government should adopt it? That this is somehow democratic?

Saturday, 27 November 2010

David Mitchell - not got a clue

Incredible article here by David Mitchell. I don't have a problem with non-professionals commenting on politics - obviously I don't, otherwise where would that leave me - but it would nice to think that if you get a comedian to write a serious article about politics he would try and do some research and make a logical argument. No such luck. First he says this:
One of the many problems with the proposals is that you need to examine them so carefully before you realise that they're not quite as awful as they initially seem. The fact that the vast amount of debt that students will accrue will only be repayable when they earn more than £21,000 a year and will be written off after 30 years of failing to do so elevates the scheme from an utter disgrace to a huge disappointment. .
At least, unlike most of the students, Mitchell has spotted that the scheme is not that awful. But then we get this:
But this scant silver lining is barely noticeable. Kids, especially from poorer backgrounds, will just see the giant cloud of future debt and infer that higher education isn't a welcome opportunity but a big financial gamble.
Quite frankly, if you aren't capable of researching the finance behind this scheme, you aren't bright or motivated enough to go to university.  As Mitchell points out in the previous bit of the paragraph, it's not a 'financial gamble' at all - if the gamble of uni education doesn't pay off, it's the state who will pick up the tab not you. And as I have pointed out before, what is more likely to put off kids?  This plan, or the absurd media hype surrounding it?

 Why have you abandoned a policy that would have alleviated such inequities, and on which you were elected, for one that worsens them?
There is no evidence that free higher ed alleviates inequities. It is a middle class susbidy. The people who have benefitted from the expansion of university places are the children of the middle classes. What is inequitable about rich kids being asked to fund their own education? What is equitable about the taxes of roadsweepers paying for the university education of the children of millionaires? The best bit, however, is this:
The student protests just might be demonstrating a growing political will to reform our higher education system, to have it paid for out of income tax. I think that would be fairer. 
David Mitchell thinks it would be fairer does he? Bless him!  Well if David Mitchell thinks it's fairer, we'd all better do it then. Never mind the fact that paying for higher ed out of income tax means dinner ladies subsidise investment bankers.  Never mind that, David Mitchell thinks it's fairer. Sod the evidence, sod the facts, sod doing any research, an Oxbridge educated comedian thinks he knows best.

Unbelievable.

Another incoherent defence of EMA

Lisa Nandy, one of the new Labour MPs, makes another incoherent defence of EMA.  
The argument for scrapping EMA is twofold: firstly, the ‘mess’ that Labour supposedly left the unsuspecting Conservative Party to clear up means that they are reluctantly forced to cut public spending and secondly that it will be replaced with a means tested and directed payment to those most in need. This logic does not even begin to stack up. The cuts are a political choice and not a necessary evil at all. 
Incredible. Does she really believe this? People are talking a lot about Lib Dems and Conservatives betraying their election pledges, but Nandy stood for election on the policies of Alistair Darling who said the cuts would be ‘worse than Thatcher’s.’ Bit of a backtrack.  Even Sunny Hundal over on Liberal Conspiracy has worked out that a return to the free spending era of the early part of this century is just not possible.
That means even if the economy recovers fully we have an £48bn (48, not 18 as previously stated) a year shortfall that needs to be plugged. Plus, we need a budget surplus if we want to reduce the national debt – which means perhaps another £5-7bn a year of cuts.
The reason why I am so insistent on this EMA point is because I do believe in a strong welfare state and because I want the money that is spent on a welfare state to be spent usefully and intelligently. It always seemed to me in the middle of the boom that EMA was fairly wasteful. Right now it seems a classic example of low-hanging fruit – a really easy way to make savings without impacting too much on outcomes.  I say this as a teacher who cares about my pupils. What annoys me as well is that people like Nandy and Polly Toynbee don’t have a clue about how this policy works on the ground.  They don’t see the presenteeism it encourages, the arbitrariness of its allocation, the waste of so much of it, the way that students receiving it would skip your lesson for a driving lesson and still not buy one course-related book by the end of the year.  We see how out of touch Nandy is in this part of the article:
The details of the new discretionary learner support fund are yet to be released but initial statements suggest that it will not include any costs for travel, it will be administered by individual schools and colleges and provide headteachers with the discretion to decide which pupils should receive it. The practicalities of this seem absurd, expecting colleges to means-test students. I can’t imagine that many would opt for this.
I actually have some sympathy with this last point, about turning teachers into social workers. But of course, this is exactly what the current EMA system does! As a 6th form teacher at the moment, I am responsible for logging my pupil’s attendance. This attendance is relayed to the local authority and if it dips below a certain point kids don’t get EMA. I know that there are cases of pupils asking teachers to mark them in when they weren't in so that they won't lose out on their money. I am only a 6th form teacher, but I know for a fact that our head of sixth spends an awful lot of time dealing with EMA problems.  So if you really are worried about teachers becoming responsible for welfare decisions, you’d get rid of EMA altogether. As it is, I think the proposed discretionary fund, whilst not perfect, isn’t bad.  It will eliminate the vast mass of kids who aren’t that badly off and would have stayed in school anyway.  Those kids who are really struggling will be able to apply for it and have their individual circumstances taken into account. Most kids who receive EMA are in London, and in London a 16-18 bus pass costs £8 a week, so even if you had to give a lot of kids the money for that you’d still make a significant saving. The problem comes when you see a pupil who clearly shouldn’t be in the 6th form, who is getting nothing out of it, but who is nevertheless really desperate for the money. If I were the teacher or head teacher called to adjudicate on that, I would probably end up giving the kid the money because I felt sorry for them. But again, as I have established, that’s not a problem new to this discretionary fund, that’s a problem present in the current system.

Nandy’s final point is this:
The EMA is a crucial plank of the agenda to widen participation in education. If Michael Gove wants more people from poor households to get to Oxford and Cambridge, as he claims, then he is going the wrong way about it and, if the demonstrations this week are anything to go by, he will live to regret it.
Why was social mobility higher in the 1950s and 60s when EMA didn’t exist? How did all the poor people who went to Oxbridge and other universities survive in the 6th form then? How did 6th formers survive before 2004? Does Lisa Nandy have any answers to these questions?

Schools, Personal Responsibility and Johann Hari

For various economic and political reasons, there's been a great deal of political focus on education over the past few decades.  There's also been an expansion of a school's traditional focuses, away from just 'the transmission of knowledge' and towards a range of personal and social aims. Thus, the Department of Education was renamed the Department of Children, Schools and Families, and most schools will offer a range of classes or programmes aimed at teaching good parenting skills, stopping kids getting pregnant, stopping kids smoking, stopping kids being anti-social, stopping kids being radicalised, getting kids to eat healthily, getting kids to understand a bank balance, getting kids to switch the lights off and cycle to school, etc. I could go on, but you get the gist.

This approach has led to some worrying that we might lose focus on a school's core activities. But it also has another significant problem.  It denies personal and parental responsibility.  You can have the best sex ed, finance ed and healthy eating ed in the world and there will still be kids who will go out and blow their week's pay packet on a binge drinking session, a Maccy Ds and end up in bed with a total stranger. If you don't believe these activities aren't a problem, then of course there isn't a problem; if you do believe these activities are deserving of blame, then I would humbly suggest the individual should share the larger part of it, then the parent, then perhaps the school and teacher, then perhaps society.

And so, onto physical education. Here we have Johann Hari, writing an entertaining piece about his problems with weight, unhealthy eating and lack of exercise. It's very funny and engaging and there is a sense of uplift as he starts exercising and realises the benefits it brings him.  But then, of course, he has to blow it.
And then, suddenly, I felt angry. It occurred to me that what I had been given so brilliantly at Matt Roberts was a physical education. I had been taught how my body works, what will keep it in good condition, and what best fuels it. I had been taught how to exercise and stretch and eat. And I thought – why was I never taught this at school? 
Of course, of course, of course. It's the school's fault.  Never mind that Johann Hari has gone to one of the best universities in the world and for about a decade has worked in a knowledge industry where he cannot fail to have become aware of at least a few of the above facts. Never mind that he very obviously has the research skills to have investigated the above questions, or that for at least a few years now he must have been making enough money to have employed a personal trainer far earlier than he did. Never mind all of this. IT'S THE SCHOOL'S FAULT.

Hari then commits the next classic error of assuming that his schooldays - two decades ago - bear even a slight resemblance to what happens in schools now:
Yes, there is a subject called physical education – but it does precisely the opposite. Just a few phrases will remind every mildly unhealthy person in Britain of what that experience is like: "All four corners of the gym – go!" "Pick a team!" "Jump OVER the horse!"
I am about the same age as Hari, and I don't remember any school PE lessons like this.  PE lessons today are even less like this. In fact, if you get a GCSE in PE you do lots of the things that I assume Hari wants - reading up about muscles, body shapes, exercises, etc. Of course, what this means is that you don't do as much of the running around outside as you used to, so you can get an A* in PE whilst being unfit and overweight. Plus, most of this sort of stuff is Biology-lite - stuff that really should be a smaller part of a Biology curriculum, and which was a part of the Biology curriculum when Hari did his GCSEs. But of course he doesn't tell you this because then it wouldn't give him someone to blame for his utter failure to do any exercise in the decade and a half since he left school:
Since school, I had carried a deep and profound sense that exercise was horrendous. And it isn't. It isn't at all. It's actually quite fun. But I had to be deprogrammed to see it. 
'Deprogrammed'. That is not only how Hari sees humanity, it's how he sees himself. A robot who is subject to being programmed and deprogrammed by unseen powers, utterly lacking the willpower and personal agency to work things out for himself.

Which is odd, because Hari hasn't needed deprogramming to see the wrongs of capitalism. He hasn't needed deprogramming to see the wrongs of the free market. I bet you that when he discovers a general press consensus that, say, a policy of the coalition's is good, he doesn't need 'deprogramming' to work out why the general consensus is wrong. I bet you there are a tonne of issues with very great media and societal consensus that Hari challenges every day, and I am fairly sure that he owes his success in his career to an element of original thinking and analysis of evidence and sources.  Why couldn't he challenge his own consensus that exercise was horrendous? Especially when he must have confronted a lot of evidence that that wasn't the case. There is one small element of honesty here - very near the end of the article Hari does grudgingly admit personal responsibility before immediately slipping in a 'but' which completely denies the force of it:
Yes, I know I bear personal responsibility for it, too – nobody forced me to eat chicken popcorn – but I do think PE had a perverse effect on me and a lot of overweight people. 
The fact is, Hari could have had the best, most sensitive physical ed lessons imaginable at school, but I bet he'd still have ended up fat. The reason why he's started exercising now is the same reason he didn't exercise then.  Personal will. He didn't want to exercise then, he does want to now.  He did want to stuff his face with fried chicken then, he doesn't now. I've got some sympathy with him. I have always enjoyed exercise, but I really really struggle against the tendency to eat buckets of KFC for every meal. The difference is I know I have greedy and unhealthy tendencies and I fight against them. Hari wants to blame his PE teachers. Is it any wonder people don't want to become teachers when on top of putting up with unruly classes and interfering governments they also have to take the blame for every teenager's insatiable appetite?

What is worrying is that the cult of 'blame someone else' is not just present amongst people who genuinely have been affected by things outside their control, or by poor people who have had fewer advantages. The cult of blame someone else is present amongst fabulously successful and advantaged people who not only want to blame someone else for their failures, but even seem reluctant to acknowledge their success. Hari should give himself a pat on the back.  Just as he deserves most of the blame for being a fat lump till his early thirties, he deserves most of the praise for getting his act together now.  He's right in that it isn't easy to change habits, especially as you get older, and that is why he deserves praise. But whilst it might be difficult to change habits, there's no short cut and it's the only thing that will work.

I guess that's the sort of thing his PE teacher might say...

Friday, 26 November 2010

Are tuition fees bad for poor kids? Or for wealthy kids?

I don’t think the tuition fees are what all the students are making them out to be. All this talking about how poor families will be affected by this – I don’t think that’s necessarily true because families don’t pay for the tuition fees, you pay for the tuition fees when you’ve got a job. 
Who said that? Nick Clegg? Vince Cable? David Willetts?  Doubtless if they had said it, the Guardian and co would be up in arms about their ‘patronising attitude’. But they didn’t say it. It was said by Shamima Blake, a rather wonderful 16 year old from East London who makes you hopeful for the future of this country. 



She was interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight last Thursday (27:24 minutes in). Unfortunately, she was outnumbered by two whinging wealthy middle-class kids who admitted they thought it was OK for dinner ladies to subsidise their time in further education.  As Ms Blake went on to say ‘I’ve researched it...and I’m pretty fine with it.’ Fantastic stuff.

One problem with Paxman’s line of argument was that he did concede to the two anti-tuition fees students that it was 'unjust’ that his generation and Nick Clegg’s generation had got a free education but kids now didn’t. This is a common myth I hear going around. It is true that Paxman and Clegg got free higher education. It is not at all true that Paxman and Clegg’s generation got free higher education. A tiny percentage of their generation went to university. Everyone else went to work at 18 and paid their taxes. My mother, who is a part of that generation who didn’t go to university at 18, gets very angry when she hears people pushing this line, and rightly so.  She did go to university when she was older and paid all her fees.  So not only was she denied the chance of university at 18 because there were so few places, when she did eventually get to uni 20 years later she had to pay her fees, and now she has to listen to wealthy, spoilt 18 year olds with about a tenth of her intelligence lecture her about how ‘lucky’ she was and how she should therefore subsidise them. Of course, Paxman and the media and the student protestors don’t even know about people like my mum, or the 35% of UK undergrads who are part-timers and who currently don’t get any help with fees or living costs.   They don’t know about them because for all of the claims to the contrary, this is a protest by the spoilt and self-absorbed children of the middle classes. And this Newsnight debate shows that perfectly.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Pollytoynbeeism and the National Secular Society

Great article here on Liberal England about 'pollytoynbeeism' - the idea that 'anyone who wished to see public spending cuts must be a supporter of the Tea Party agenda' and that 'anyone who suggests it might be necessary or desirable to move on from the policies pursued by the last Labour government must be a crazed right-winger.' As I have argued before, not only is this bonkers, it is also profoundly contradictory as Toynbee herself has argued on many occasions that money doesn't make you happy.

I would like to nominate another example of pollytoynbeeism. I was listening to a programme about religious charities on Radio 4 at the weekend. They got Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society on to criticise these charities. So far, fair enough. Then he said this:
'it [the religious charity] is conspiring with this government and the previous government to dismantle the welfare state, to make people dependent on charity.'
This is wrong on so many levels it is really quite absurd, but at the heart of it is pollytoynbeeism - cut anything and the world collapses. Of course the particularly ridiculous thing about this is that it is a secularist arguing for more state intervention - in a country that has an established church! I am an atheist, and as an atheist I think the first task of any self-proclaimed secular society should be to argue against the state backing and financing of religion. But that just shows you how far the rot has set in. Even secularists - who should know better than anyone how pernicious and unfair state intervention can be - even they have bought into the idea that only the state can do good, only good things are done by the state, and these good things are achieved by spending money. Baffling. Utterly, utterly, baffling.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Apple Macs for all!

I should probably blog about something other than EMA but the Save EMA website is just too good not to comment on. So in my last post I explained how one young woman 'needed' EMA to buy a car.  Here are some more EMA uses.
Charlie: I Think that without ema i will never be able to afford to go to college and pay for the equipment i need as most of my work is done on apple macs as i am a media student all my ema will go towards paying off my fee for my apple mac and other equipment.
Dan: Without my ema, i will not be able to afford a car, which i need for my work (i have no choice but to be self employed).
George Skae: without EMA, my education will suffer and most of my time will be taken up by working for money so that I can have enough money to go on educational trips such as Auschwitz with Religious Studies.
I should say here that I don't necessarily blame these kids for taking what they can get.  As I have said on a previous post, I didn't take up EMA when it was available and I probably should have done.  It would have meant that I could have learnt to drive years before I eventually did, and maybe got a new computer too.  If the government are chucking money at you of course you are going to spend it.

What aggravates me is that these kids honestly believe that they deserve this money. They honestly think that driving lessons, trips abroad and Apple Macs are things that the government should be subsidising.  They honestly think that without these things they are deprived.  They honestly think that without these things their future is being wrecked. We're in an unparalleled financial crisis, and 17-year-olds think that a personal Apple Mac for every media studies student is a national priority.

And these are the sorts of things they think are absolutely necessary for sixth form study. These aren't in that sense abuses of the system - I didn't go undercover and track down how they spent EMA, I didn't even ask them to list non-essential things they spent EMA on. They are citing these things as positive and essential uses of EMA. I'd love to know the sorts of things they think are not necessary, or even, perhaps, actively detract from studying. Another student gives us an idea:

Sam Young: i feel like i am loosing out when i look at my peers who have EMA and they are able to go out each weekend, or go shopping. 

So some of the kids do realise that quite a bit of EMA is being wasted. But unfortunately, the conclusion this young man draws from this is not that we could therefore legitimately cut a lot of EMA, but that it should be expanded so that he can be eligible for it too! Incredible! We're wasting money - let's not cut waste, let's give everyone the same entitlement to be able to waste money.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

More Save EMA madness

After my previous post on Polly Toynbee and EMA, I carried on browsing through the Save EMA website and came across someone who is seriously suggesting that she needs EMA in order to buy a car.

Emily:  How the government can take this away I really do not know. We’re the future generation to try and keep these countries on their feet, don’t take our helping hand away from us. I was planning to buy a car next year- but without EMA, with what money? It’s not like it’s easy for me to get a job in a small town whilst being on a full time level 3 course. Students need this money more than it’s realised.
Well, that last line is right. I really cannot realise how teenagers should have expensive luxuries funded by taxpayers, many of whom cannot afford those luxuries themselves. Utterly incredible

Polly Toynbee. EMA. Again.

Of the many things that annoy me about the defence of EMA, perhaps the one that annoys me the most is the suggestion that without it, poor kids will simply give up school, sit at home and rot. Polly Toynbee makes this point very clearly in the title of her latest article:
How to turn 60,000 students into unqualified drop-outs.
That statement is based on a profoundly regressive and demoralising belief - the belief that the government are all powerful, that individuals are cogs in a machine, passive recipients of government largesse or stinginess, unable utterly to make a difference to their own lives. With one sweep of a pen, government can transform 60,000 otherwise hard-working and intelligent students into 'unqualified drop-outs'.

This is simply not true, and worse than being untrue it seeks to dehumanise poor kids. It is yet another example of what I see again and again - that many Labour policies of the last decade or so, whilst aiming to help the poor actually ending up entrenching their poverty. Worse, not only do they entrench poverty but they make people’s lives spiritually and emotionally weaker.  If you suggest to kids that their entire success is down to government handouts, you suggest that nothing they do themselves is that important (see Bridget Phillipson and Andy Burnham). If they do succeed, the implication is it’s not really down to their own efforts; if they don’t succeed, well, it’s the fault of government for not being kind enough.

Of course we know that this is simply not true. Personal endeavour does make a difference, and accounts for many of the differences between people born in exactly the same circumstances. Taking responsibility for yourself is not a nasty right-wing doctrine but is actually the first step to leading a fulfilling life.  There are undoubtedly many unfairnesses in British life, and we should work to get rid of them, but we also need to remember that in terms of opportunities and resources, modern Britain is one of the best places in the world and in human history to be born in.

But, the worry is that if you tell people they are completely powerless enough, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and kids really start to believe it.  In case you doubt the impact that these sorts of ideas can have, take a look at the Save EMA website where hundreds of pupils show they have completely swallowed these sorts of beliefs.  None of them attempt to come up with any ways around the EMA cut – their kneejerk response is to say why this means they cannot stay on at school and why this will doom their entire future:
michael Thorpe: this would not be good this is to help me get to college by travel and it is to help me provide for the courses if i dont get my EMA i will not be able to continue my education meaning i woould not get to get the grades i need for universty meaning no future
nadine wellings: If they took EMA from us students at college’s all around the borough will leave the course. They obvoisly need to have money to live on, so will have to there-fore end up working. Meaning that there will be way less nurse’s/doctors/police/etc. It’s not just us losing out it’s the whole of the community.
Connor Clarke: EMA should not be stopped because people won’t want to come to college. I need my ema because this gives me an insentive to learn.
Nicola Duke: I feel that if EMA is taken away I would be more enclined to go and get a lower class job which would not help me in later life. EMA is an insentive for me to learn and I don’t want it to be scrapped.
Leon Sutton: I think that I should be able to get money if i’m attending training it’s my insentive to learn.
James Murray: If EMA stops I will stopp attending college and go on the dole and that would then cost more.
Kathy: I myself as a student would suffer without ema, and so would many others, and then they go on about Anti social behaviour etc..?of course that will increase if students dont bother going to school,what else will they do?
Dianna: THEY SHOULD KEEP EMA GOING BECAUSE I CAN HONESTLY SAY NO TEENAGER WILL BE IN EDUCATION EVERYONE WILL BE ON THE STREET MAKING TROUBLE COLLAGES WILL LOOSE OUT OF STUDENTS. WE GIVE UP OUR TIME AND EFFORT ON COMING TO COLLAGE TO HAVE A GOOD FUTURE, UNLIKE SOME KIDS FINISHING SCHOOL AND DOING NOTHING BUT GETTING IN AND OUT OFF PRISON.
Look at the attitudes in these posts.  Listen to the way the kids quite literally view themselves in a dehumanised manner – they need an ‘insentive’ to learn, because apparently the incentive of it getting you a better job in the long term or, god forbid, the incentive of the love of learning, are just not enough. If Nicola Duke knows that getting a lower class job will not help her in later life, why does she not try and find a way to stay on at college? The myth that kids will be dropping out to get jobs is fairly well exploded by Kathy and Dianna who acknowledge that the kids who do drop out won’t be doing so to earn a few quid for the family coffers, but will be dropping out in order to get in trouble on the street and cause anti-social behaviour. James Murray seems to want to cut off his nose to spite his face - he would rather quit college if he doesn't get EMA to go on the dole and therefore financially punish the government.

What would Polly Toynbee and Bridget Phillipson be doing if they were teachers, I wonder? What advice would they give pupils like these? Would they say that they felt sorry for the pupils but that they should try and stay at college anyway because it would be worth it in the long run? Would they help the really needy with practical ways to meet travel and book costs? Would they try and point out – gently – that before 2004 lots of poor kids did manage to get through 6th form without EMA? Or would they tell all the kids on EMA that they were absolutely sunk, that they’d probably drop out within a few weeks and that because of the evil government there was absolutely no future for any of them so they might as well give up now?

I know what I am going to do, and I think I know what Toynbee and Phillipson would do too.


Thursday, 18 November 2010

I can't defend violence, but...

Very odd Guardian article here by Grace Dent.

Firstly, I love the title:
The government's cuts might drive me into the streets.
This is exactly the sort of thing my year 8s say to me: It wasn't my fault, he made me do it!  I didn't want to hit him over the head 17 times with dog-eared maths textbook, he made me do it! If you ask me to pick up a pen, I might have to use the pen to stab the kid sitting next to me! You asking me to work might make me hit someone!

And from that promising start, the resemblances between Ms Dent and a stroppy teenager just get more pronounced.  There is this:
Obviously, I can't condone chucking fire extinguishers off buildings, although I do feel growingly, stinkingly cross these days.
Then this:
Obviously I can't condone picking up a rock and throwing it at Millbank over legal aid, but what boils my innards is that there will not be a single member of the cabinet or the royal family who doesn't have the number of a "family lawyer" in their address book.
It seems to me that someone whose innards boil at the contents of other people's address books is perhaps not the most stable. Then:
Obviously I can't condone violence, you'll never find me in the path of galloping police horses holding a pipebomb – in fact the closest I get to a scuffle is the Topshop post-Christmas sale. But come summer 2011, with the royal wedding hoopla and council cuts in full glorious swing, will I have crossed the line?
I don't know. I would suggest that Grace Dent would be the one to answer that, although given her complete lack of belief in personal agency, maybe even she doesn't.  She is a mere machine, reacting only to what the government do. And then just in case we haven't got the message threat: 
Say police and officials come to remove a poor family from my street for non-payment of rent and disperse them somewhere less expensive? What will I do?... Obviously, I can't condone how a riot might break out in these circumstances, but I can see how it might occur.
Well that's all all right then.  Let's all go and squat in a nice Islington mansion tomorrow, safe in the knowledge that when we get evicted, Grace Dent will be there 'not condoning' violence, but not doing very much at all to stop it either.

More Labour reactionaries

So one post on Labour list says the goverment is:
 a reactionary coalition government 
And then the next post, a summary of PMQs.  Douglas Alexander says don't cut public sector jobs, John Healey says don't reform the NHS, Ed Balls says don't let police retire, Andy Burnham says don't touch school sport.

As I have been saying in all my posts on here, more Labour reactionaries. Except that now they've got the cheek to call the government reactionary.

Just a few definitions here for you:


Reactionary (also reactionist) refers to any political or social movement or ideology that seeks a return to a previous state (the status quo ante).


One who is opposed to change.

That would be this Labour government then, with its big beasts like Balls, Burnham and Alexander longing for a return to the halcyon days of New Labour.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Polly Toynbee on EMA...sigh

Here we go again.  EMA gets shoehorned in here as part of a wider argument that GDP isn't that important - it's all about happiness:
Because the likes of Joseph Stiglitz, Amartya Sen, Layard and many others found all the evidence showed that a doubled GDP in 30 years hadn't made people in developed countries any happier.
Then, later on in the article is the massive contradiction:
The poorest teenagers are about to lose the educational maintenance allowance that paid their travel to college and gave them a little money of their own. 
I don't see how you can advocate EMA in the same breath as denouncing the value of GDP growth. Essentially, the whole point about New Labour and some of its classic programmes such as EMA were that they were entirely dependent on economic growth. New Labour's answer to most social problems was to chuck money at them.  Some Labour MPs are honest about this - Jon Cruddas accepts that 'The Blair-Brown period – its central characteristic was growth: 15 years, 60 quarters of growth.' Even Sunny Hundal accepts that 'The second problem is that a significant portion of tax revenues prior to the crash came from the banking sector. Those revenues are unlikely to recover to similar levels as the financial merry-go-round has stopped.'

Polly Toynbee and most of Labour are still squealing when any of this money is cut.  If you want to be a leftwing reactionary and try and preserve as much of what New Labour did, then you bloody well need to hope that GDP doubles in the next thirty years as it did in the last, because unless it does you are really not going to be able to afford to give away half a billion quid to 17 year olds. Millions of poor teenagers went to college, went to university, built careers for themselves and I would guess were quite happy in the decades before it was ever introduced - I am one of them.  EMA was introduced in 2004, at the peak of the boom in the midst of the growth we thought would never end.  If the growth really had never ended, it would still be wasteful but I suppose you could argue we could afford it. As it is, it is completely indefensible. Essentially, that was the New Labour compact - encourage unsustainable, frivolous and socially useless speculation and spend the proceeds on unsustainable, frivolous and socially useless government programmes.

Ultimately, Toynbee's article is founded on a massive contradiction common to many in Labour at the moment - money doesn't make you any happier, but if you cut the money of any government programme whatsoever, it results in massive unhappiness.

Talking to Tories worse than locking up foreign kids

Tom Brake has just written a measured article about ending child detention on Comment Is Free. What's the response in the comments? Unbridled snark.

Now it was outrageous that Labour ever allowed child detention. But it seems now that not only did Labour tribalists allow it, but that would prefer kids to be locked up than that any LD should ever have negotiated or compromised with the Tories. Nothing, it seems, can excuse this heinous betrayal. Collaborating with Tories is EVIL EVIL EVIL whereas locking up kids - well, that's just politics.




Monday, 15 November 2010

What will put poor kids off going to uni? A fairer funding scheme, or media hyperbole?

I was talking to my mother about student protests the other night and she said an interesting thing.

"When they first brought fees in, I really worried that you wouldn't be able to afford to go to university. But you did, and I couldn't believe it when I found out you didn't have to pay up front."

 In 1998, she'd listened to the protestors complaining that fees would put poor students off university, and knowing we were a poor family, she worried. In actual fact, because we were poor we got a lot of help and I was able to go to a Russell Group uni without paying anything up front. I have a fairly large student loan I am paying off now, but it's essentially like extra tax.  Indeed, one might almost say it is like a graduate tax.

My point is that now, as in 1998, the thing that is going to put off poor kids going to university is NOT the new funding schemes.  The thing that is going to put them off is ridiculous media hyperbole about graduating with massive debts. Perhaps the new scheme does put you in debt, but believe me there is a gigantic difference between debt that accumulates mortgage-style interest and that you start paying back mortgage style the month after you graduate, and debt that is only paid back once you earn above a certain income, otherwise it gets cancelled. I remember whinging about my loans at uni and being sharply rebuked by an American friend. Quite.

Not only that, but poor students will pay LESS under this scheme than they are at the minute.  The repayment threshold has gone up to 21k from 15.  The people who will really suffer under this scheme are the middle and upper classes, which is why I guess they were all out in force protesting against it.  Let's just be clear about that though, and not have any nonsense about this plan being anti-poor people. If you care about the poor getting a university education, then you have a responsibility not to wilfully misrepresent this plan by claiming it is a wrecking ball to the life chances of the young. I will blog a bit more later about how this will affect the sorts of sixth formers I teach.

Katharine Birbalsingh, Fiona Millar and Toby Young in internet row.

One thing that distracted me from all the protests last week and provided a slight bit of comic relief was this internet spat between the aforementioned.

It started with Fiona Millar attacking Katharine Birbalsingh, the state school teacher who spoke about poor behaviour at the Tory conference, mentioned the names of pupils she taught and then left the school. Fiona Millar rather patronisingly suggested that no one would be listening to Katharine Birbalisingh if she were middle-aged and white.  She also suggested that Birbalsingh had been hired by Michael Gove. Birbalsingh reacted angrily in her blog, asserting that she had not been paid at all by Michael Gove.  Then, Toby Young weighed in on Birbalsingh's side with a list of five questions for Fiona Millar. Over on one of Fiona Millar's comprehensive-advocacy websites, there is a ding-dong battle going on in the forums between Millar and Young.

On balance, I think I am on Birbalsingh's and Young's side. I am undecided about the merits of free schools versus comps, but I think Fiona Millar damages her argument by not listening to any of the real criticisms of state schools that Katharine Birbalsingh raises.  It's not enough to say that the majority of comps are great and the only reason why they're not great is because they're not genuinely comprehensive.  The fact is, there are real problems in a lot of our comprehensives.  This is not to put down the hard work and dedication of an awful lot of state school teachers. Indeed, most of the state school teachers I know are the most trenchant critics of their schools, at least in private.  Like I say, I am not sure that free schools are the answer but I think Fiona Millar has to do more than argue for more of the same, in the standard left-wing reactionary pose that is so common amongst the Labour party at the moment.

I love Toby Young's questions, in particular this one:  
Private Eye ran a story a few years ago saying that your son, who went to William Ellis, was given a sum of money by the school from a fund intended to help children from low income families with the cost of attending university when he won a place at Oxford. This was during your tenure as Chair of the Board of Governors and, according to the Eye, it was the Governors who doled out the money. Can you confirm if this is true? And, if it is, can you explain how your son met the eligibility criteria? 
I remember reading about this in Private Eye a few years ago and thinking it couldn't possibly be true. Would love to hear Millar's response to that!

Clegg has not betrayed us!

Opinion: Clegg has not betrayed us!

Great post here on Lib Dem voice. I am not alone.

Tom Harris takes on Laurie Penny - good job

I have been planning to write something about Laurie Penny lately, but the sheer number of ways in which she is wrong makes it so very difficult. Tom Harris has got there first, in a much-needed denunciation of 'the kind of self-delusional, self-indulgent, easily-dismissable nonsense which succeeds only in convincing the wider electorate that the Left is, at root, unfit to to be trusted with government.'

Tom Harris rightly points out that the main thing that is wrong with this particular article - and there are many other subsidiary elements of wrongness which later blog posts will address - is its fundamental misunderstanding of democracy. According to Penny, today's students are exactly the same as suffragettes in the early part of the 20th century, because even though students now have the vote,

Feeling that they no longer have a voice or a stake in the political process, that their votes are worthless if the parties who they supported instantly break their manifesto pledges, they took to the streets in their thousands and launched a furious attack on Tory HQ.

Priyamvada Gopal made exactly the same point in a similarly absurd article on Comment is Free:

politicians such as Nick Gibb, the education minister, insist[ed] that a largely peaceful protest by tens of thousands of students will not change the government's planned course of action in the slightest.

Does she or Penny really really think that the government should change its mind whenever 50,000 people protest, violently or non-violently? Are they aware that there are 40 million voters in the UK? I once worked at a school in an area where I am pretty certain there were 50,000 people who would have marched to deport all immigrants. The BNP polled half a million at the last election - suppose they could get a tenth of that on the streets of London, should we listen to them? Would Penny and Gopal support that? Because that's what sort of a precedent this would create.

Ultimately, Penny and Gopal's argument rest on a fundamental misunderstanding of British democracy. We don't have delegates as MPs, we have representatives. On top of that, because we have a coalition, there will inevitably have to be compromises and negotiations. As a famous Liberal said, 'when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?' Chuck fire extinguishers off the top of tall buildings, it would seem.

More Victorian Nonsense - workhouses and slave labour

So, there is a post up on Labour List suggesting that IDS's policies will drive the poor 'back to the workhouse'. I thought first of all that mentioning workhouses in the headline was an absurd rhetorical trope, but no, the author really does seem convinced that workhouses are going to be built because he says in the body of the article that the new policies are 'driving the undeserving poor into the workhouse.' Apparently they are 'nothing short of wicked.' The author has just enough self-awareness to say that 'To describe it as ‘slave labour’ sounds an absurd exaggeration' but then thoroughly ruins it by saying 'yet how exactly is it going to differ?' Er, in that they're not slaves, maybe?

I wonder, will any of these people apologise when workhouses aren't built and when chained gangs of slaves don't appear on our streets?

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Higher education protests

I will blog at length about this later, but for now I have been utterly appalled by the student protests and the media reaction to them.  We've had Johann Hari follow Bridget Phillipson and Andy Burnham into denying his own intelligence and hard work.  We've had an academic on Comment is Free suggesting that the government are being undemocratic in not listening to the yells of 50,000 people. We've had the spectacle of some of the brightest, most privileged and most fortunate people in the UK - no, in the world - angrily try to destroy the society and values that gave them such privilege.  And we've seen a host of alleged progressives angrily denounce a highly progressive plan for funding higher education. All in all, a fairly depressing week.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Phil Woolas isn't that bad...

Were all those Lib Dem MPs lying about fees if they meant it at the time? | Michael White's political briefing | Comment is free | The Guardian

And so the apologists start. This just goes to show yet again how Labour have a monopoly on morality. You can absolutely guarantee that if a Tory had done what Woolas did, no words of condemnation would be spared. Blimey, I think people would have been shocked if a BNP member had said the things he did. But because he's Labour, then it seems that he is allowed to foment race hatred, because I guess, you know, well, his heart is in the right place.

Thus, we have Michael White claiming that Woolas stirring up race hate is exactly the same as the Lib Dems compromising in coalition. Exactly the same. Not a word about how Labour broke how many of their manifesto commitments in 1997, despite not being in coalition and having a gigantic mandate to enforce that manifesto. I guess that is different again, because, well, you know, we can trust Labour.

Amusingly, White seems to have gone too far even for some of the rabid anti Lib Dems on Comment Is Free. Hallelujah, there are some limits to Labour's monopoly on morality. If you deliberately tell lies about your opponent and design a campaign strategy that aims to get the white vote angry, then most Labour voters will think that's a bit worse than working together with another party to redesign the tuition fees system.

It's good to know.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Katharine Birbalsingh again - how Labour have a monopoly on morality

The Left think people on the Right are twisted and mean – even if they spend their lives helping the poor – Telegraph Blogs

Katharine Birbalsingh gets it right again.  This is the sort of attitude I come up against again and again and again.  Several of my friends are like Birbalsingh's - wealthy, middle-class, well-educated, doing well-paid jobs either in the private sector or the cushy part of the public sector. When I explain to them what it is like teaching in an inner city school, you can see that they are itching to make excuses for the kids, to justify their bad behaviour in terms of poverty or lack of resources.  When I suggest that the money that has been poured into state schools in the form of new buildings and expensive ICT equipment has had absolutely no impact on the kids' behaviour or attainment, they look shocked and assume you are evil. The fact that I, like Birbalsingh and Theodore Dalrymple, who she quotes, spend every day of my working life dealing with these kids doesn't seem to matter to them.  I say something that Tories once said, ergo I am evil. I suggest that chucking money at social problems has been tried for 13 years and has failed, ergo I am evil. I suggest that cutting money won't have a negative impact and might possibly have a positive one, ergo I am evil.  Never mind I spend my days and too many of my nights worrying about why my kids aren't learning, I am evil.  And evil really isn't too strong a word - well obviously it is too strong a word, that's my point, but it is the sort of word that Polly Toynbee, CIF commentators, Guardian editorial writers, Labour MPs and assorted bloggers and twitterers do use

What's happened is that the Labour party have got a monopoly on morality. Take Iain Duncan Smith, for example. I might disagree with aspects of his welfare to work plan. But I do not believe for a second he is motivated by 'evil' or by a desire to do down the poor.  Actually, I don't believe many politicians are - after all, the flip side of 'they're all as bad as each other' is 'they're all as good as each other' and on the whole, most people in Parliament could probably have had an easier life and more money outside politics. What I believe is that on the whole, when politicians get stuff wrong, it's because they're misguided. They think that something will help the poor, and then it turns out not to. On balance, most parties are subject to this kind of misguidedness, and it can be compounded by stubbornness.  But being misguided and stubborn isn't being evil.  Thus, Ed Balls, a man I loathe, is not evil - he just has the two aforementioned qualities in spades. It did result in pupils and teachers suffering but I really don't believe that was his intention.

People seem happy to believe in this view of things when you are talking about Labour politicians. So, even when Labour cheerleaders do admit to flaws in their plans, they will attribute it to being misguided and assert that their heart is in the right place. This was frequently a defence of Gordon Brown - he might be a psychopath, he might be dangerously unhinged, he might have just increased tax for the poorest people, but he's in politics for the right reasons.

But when it comes to pretty much anyone from the Tories - and now from the Lib Dems too - the default assumption is that they want to kick the poor. I simply do not believe this.  Iain Duncan Smith has set up his own think tank and spent six years doing detailed investigation into the lives of the poor.  He has come up with ideas that he thinks will help the poor. He may be wrong about them - I certainly have my questions about some aspects. But there is no way he is motivated by hatred, in the same way that I am not motivated by hatred when I suggest it would be a good idea for the pupils I teach to stop making excuses and do their homework. And he has a far greater understanding of the problem than very many of his adversaries, just as Theodore Dalrymple has a far greater understanding of the problems of inner city Britain than many of the assorted bloggers and media types queuing up to call him evil on Twitter.

Polly Toynbee says EMA cuts are 'wicked'...and she isn't using street slang

Sorry, students, but you're low in the pain pecking order | Polly Toynbee | Comment is free | The Guardian

So something I can half agree with Polly Toynbee over. Students are low down in the pecking order of people who will suffer from cuts. But just as I was thinking she's not that bad after all, we get this:

Start with the wickedest cut, the abolition of the education maintenance allowance (EMA) – the £30 a week that helps young people stay in school or college, replaced by a tiny tin of hardship money for unhappy college principals to disburse in extremis.

Yep, that's right.  'Wickedest'. Cutting the discretionary spending of 16-18 year olds is 'wicked'.  Why on earth should anyone take anything Toynbee says seriously when she engages in this kind of hyperbole?  The word 'wicked' needs to be reserved for really evil things, not for policy decisions which at the very very worst will mean a kid having to cycle to college instead of getting the bus.

Things like this also make me wonder if Polly Toynbee knows anyone who gets EMA or anyone who works in the state sector - I mean on the front line of the state sector, of course, not in the panoply of jobs in town halls and quangos. Most of the teachers I know agree with me and think that EMA is ripe for cutting, are we all wicked?  Let's consider some of the other things Toynbee says:
The withdrawal of the EMA for poor sixth-formers that will hit unsuspecting families hard when they find it suddenly gone. Forget Gordon Brown's 10p tax disgrace which only cost people £230 a year: snatching away £30 a week from the very poorest families with studying teenagers will be a £1,560 shocker. 
Unbelievable.  Firstly, these very poorest families didn't get that £30 a week for the first sixteen years of the kids' life.  That's because the point of EMA was never to help families out of poverty - Labour themselves NEVER claimed that. Tax credits, child benefit, other benefits etc., did that.  The point of EMA was basically to persuade kids to stay on at school. It was an educational policy, not a welfare one. The idea was to try and reduce the attractiveness of leaving school at 16 and getting a part-time job. It quite clearly was NOT about lifting families out of poverty - it would be an odd policy that aimed to help families out of poverty by waiting for their kids to be 16 before you helped them. Thus, because it was an educational policy, if a kid didn't attend school, schools were entitled to withhold their EMA money regardless of whether the kid desperately needed the money or not; likewise, a 16 year old in desperate poverty but not in education couldn't claim the money. The clue is in the name: EDUCATION maintenance allowance. Thirdly, pupils became eligible for EMA money as they entered sixth form or college - that is, at precisely the same time as most of them would have a reduced timetable and more time to get a part-time job.  I understand that there aren't that many jobs out there at the moment, but the time sixth formers gain at least makes this a possibility. I also understand that this can impinge on your time for studying, but that seems to me to be an individual lifestyle choice. Lest I be accused of being a heartless bastard, let me restate that I was eligible for the first EMA pilot, that I didn't take it up and I didn't have a part time job - and my family and I didn't suffer some great hardship as a result.

Finally, of course, there is the fact that EMA didn't exist before 2004. I find it hard to believe how such a recent policy has managed to inspire such crazed defences of it, as though it forms a central part of our nation's heritage.  I mean, I thought the child benefit changes were fine, but even so the sentimental appeals to the foundation of the welfare state and its universality did make me a little misty-eyed.  Very few people alive today have had to bring up a family without child benefit, so at least when its rabid defenders claimed that removing it would take us back to the Depression era they had a skewed kind of historical fact on their side. But EMA has been around for barely half a decade. We can all remember a world without it, and we all know that that world was not a wicked, illiberal one where poor kids scrubbed floors instead of doing A-levels. I think the reason why EMA inspires such defences is of course that it was a New Labour policy, so their cheerleaders feel obliged to come out and defend the legacy.  And I think that what this shows is the absolute paucity of that legacy.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Scurvy and Rickets! Mass outbreak!

When it comes to school dinners, Michael Gove needs a good helping of sense | Carrie Quinlan | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk

I've only been doing this blog three days and already I am sick to death of the nonsense I am reading. Tristram Hunt saying Our Mutual Friend is just around the corner, a Guardian editorial telling us Jude Fawley wouldn't have liked the Browne Review, and now someone on CIF telling us that getting rid of school dinners will lead to kids having 'scurvy and rickets.'

Of course, the government aren't actually getting rid of Free School Meals. They are simply not extending them to poor working parents. People on unemployment benefits will still get them. So no-one will be worse off and nothing will change.

But according to the writer of this piece, this continuation of the status quo is going to lead to a mass outbreak of scurvy and rickets.

Utterly unbelievable.

As a side issue, let's consider for a moment the main nutritional problems that currently affect kids in Britain. You would think that a Guardian writer would have read The Spirit Level, which tells you that obesity is one of them, and that obesity correlates with 'poverty'. Clearly, this is not the sort of nutritional problem that comes from absolute poverty. To go back to everyone's favourite historical era, you didn't get kids waddling out of the workhouse. We are in a very different Britain from the one Guardian writers would like you to believe we live in.

At my last school, we had a phenomenal canteen run on Jamie Oliver lines, subsidised for all kids and free for the poorest. All the staff ate there because it was so good. When I started teaching there, I was so impressed by this and bought into the idea that it would hugely improve the kids' concentration and work. How naive I was.

Barely any of the kids ate there. The kids who could afford it nipped off down the chicken shop at lunch. The kids on FSM who couldn't regularly chose the unhealthiest or least-nutritious item on the menu - which was difficult, because the menu was so good. Often they'd turn down homecooked sausage and mash or lamb stew for a bowl of custard, or a slice of white bread. When there were chips on the menu, the kids would ask for them on their own, which the dinner staff weren't allowed to do. So the kids would get the whole meal, then eat the chips and leave everything else on their plates. When I walked into my classroom in the morning for register, the bin would already be overflowing with crisps packets, cans of soft drink, chocolate wrappers - and it would be all the kids eating them, including the ones on FSM.

Now, tell me how giving more of the poorer kids in that class a meal subsidy is going to solve that problem?

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Another Labour MP denies his own hard work and intelligence

So yesterday we had Bridget Phillipson claiming that a large part of her success in life was down to a £20 a week government subsidy.

And now we have Andy Burnham trying something similar.

My passion in politics is raising aspiration for all. It was forged by the disorientating experience of going in the 1980s from a Merseyside comprehensive to Cambridge University. I spent my first two years fearing the tap on the shoulder and a polite request to leave. But, as I began to see past the fa├žade of opinionated self-confidence, I realised just how unfairly we distribute life chances in this country. It’s still true today – postcode rather than potential determines where a child ends up. 
Hmm. So would Andy Burnham like to give a reason as for why he got in to Cambridge?  Was it all just a fluke? Or could it be down to the fact that he was bright and he worked bloody hard?  Could it also be down to the fact that however class-bound some of our institutions are, they do offer opportunities for those who are bright and work hard - opportunities that men and women in other societies would die for? What's interesting here is that Labour MPs are keen to suggest their success depends on Labour institutions - eg EMA - but very much less keen to suggest their success depends on other institutions - eg Cambridge university, its openness to bright pupils from all walks of life.

From what I can see, Burnham is slagging off the system that did him so well, and suggesting to bright kids that they can't succeed if they've got the wrong postcode. This is an extremely odd way to promote aspiration. How about he tours some of the tough inner city schools out there and tells the kids that if they knuckle under and work hard, they can succeed. I mean, it worked for him...

Andy Burnham's first speech as Shadow Ed Secretary

Andy Burnham: "my passion in politics is raising aspiration for all" | LabourList.org 2.0.2 | LabourList.org:

"My worry is that, in time, the schools-focus will leave other crucial services – for instance safeguarding and youth services in the cold."

Unbelievable that he can say this on the day that Ofsted was revealed to have failed AGAIN in its child protection role - a role given to it by Labour. Utterly, utterly unbelievable.

Come on Gove, man up and chuck Ofsted on the quango bonfire as well.

Browne and Higher Ed


As a Lib Dem, I am supposed to be outraged by the Browne plan to fund universities. Actually, I'm not.  His recommendations seem fairly innocuous to me.  As far as I can see, it’s a capped graduate tax. You don’t pay upfront, what you do pay bears a relation to the cost of your course, you only start paying back if you are earning enough. I can see how Lib Dem MPs who signed the pledge not to increase tuition fees are in an awkward situation. Personally, I felt it was a fairly risky pledge at the time, and not one that was particularly liberal or democratic.  This current scheme is much fairer than the current one or the previous no-fees one.I think it's reasonable to argue that it isn't an increase in fees, it's a capped graduate tax, but good luck getting any of the NUS hacks to listen to reason.

I think the policy of abolishing all tuition fees and having universities funded out of general taxation is misguided. It’s not progressive at all. What it means is that poor people who have never been to university end up subsidising three years of living costs for some of the wealthiest and most privileged people in society, and also pay for the tuition fees that will ensure that person earns more over their career than they could ever hope for.  True, all of society benefits from having university graduates whether we are graduates or not: but I believe most of the studies show that a great deal of the financial benefit of studying at university accrues to the graduate, so it is only fair to ask them to pay more.

Obviously, it’s true that Lib Dems campaigned on abolishing tuition fees,  and so a lot will come down to whether you see the implementation of Browne as being a tuition fee or a kind of capped graduate tax. That will matter a lot in people’s perceptions of whether the Lib Dems have sold out or not.  For me, the important thing is that we don’t end up with a system like America’s, where you have to pay colossal fees up front and then start paying them back mortgage style the month after you graduate. I think that really does penalise kids from poorer families.  This system will not do that.


One final thing - it's been said a lot that this system will make people think twice about going to university. Let us hope so. Let us hope that sixth form students really will think very carefully about whether a university degree is right for them, whether it really is worth the money, and which subject will be the best for them.  What would also be good was if this system would make students think twice about how they should spent their time once at university - reading books and going to seminars, or going out and getting drunk.

Yet more utter misrepresentations of coalition policy and Victorian Britain

I did a lot of Victorian Literature as part of my degree, and it really really annoys me when people utterly misunderstand the Victorians. So we have had Tristram Hunt telling us that cuts to housing benefit will bring back the Victorian workhouse.  And now we have the Guardian telling us that the Browne review will send us back to the days of Jude Fawley.  Utterly unbelievable. Have any of these people actually read any of these texts or studied the Victorians? Let's point out some of the differences between modern Britain and Victorian Britain.

1. The principle of 'less eligibility' in Victorian times meant workhouses had to semi-starve people: the principle of less eligibility now means living in Putney not Westminster.
2. The Victorians had workhouses. We don't and aren't bringing them back.
3. Jude Fawley couldn't go to university because there was no funding for poor people and no access to loans at all.  If Jude had been offered a university education on Browne's terms, HE WOULD HAVE JUMPED AT IT. If any university today were offered a working-class student of Jude's ability and motivation, THEY WOULD CHUCK SCHOLARSHIPS AT HIM. How many working-class kids now do you know who spend their pocket money on Greek and Latin classics and stay up all night teaching themselves Greek and Latin?
4. In Victorian times, poverty did have an impact on people's educational outcomes because they had to work full time from a very young age and they didn't have money for the most important educational resource - books. Everyone in this country gets a guaranteed free 11 years education, and a free two extra years if they meet some basic standards. Everyone also has access to free public libraries.  So modern poverty, such as it is, is completely different in its nature and effects from Victorian poverty.
5. Tristram Hunt refers to Betty Higden in Our Mutual Friend being petrified of the workhouse. I prefer Hardy's less sentimental, more ironic take on workhouses.  Perhaps we should bring them back...

Small Schools Good

Expanding good schools can be a recipe for disaster – Telegraph Blog


I think Katherine Birbalsingh is definitely on to something here. Lots of small schools are very good precisely because they are small. The crucial factor in my personal experience is whether you know the names of all the kids in the school.

I will give an example, one of many I could give. Last term I was walking from my department to the photocopying room on the other side of the school. I had about fifteen minutes before I had to register my class. To get there, I had to walk across the large atrium outside the canteen where all the kids congregated before the bell went. As I walked across it, I saw a pupil I didn't know kicking a full can of coke across the floor. I asked him to stop: he carried on kicking on it and it exploded, with the coke going everywhere. I didn't know his name, and it's only when you've been in this situation that you can understand what a handicap it is not to know a kid's name. He ran off shouting down the corridor. I called for him to come back, but at that point you are on a hiding to nothing.  I knew teachers who would do a Sweeney and charge off down the corridor yelling and screaming at the kid to pull them back.  Whether or not you’re in favour of corporal punishment – I am not – this teacher would look like a tit.  Kids would gather round giggling. The naughty kid would look like a rebellious hero.

My tactic in these situations was to call after the kid calmly that I would find out who he was and ring his parents. It didn’t make me look particularly good, but once a kid has completely ignored your instruction in front of about 100 kids, there isn’t a lot you can do to look good. Had I known the kid’s name, then 99 times out of 100 the kid would turn round and slope back towards me. There would be times a kid would be running off, and another teacher who did know his name would come on the scene and call his name. Bingo: the kid starts to listen. 

The conclusion I take from this is that we need schools where everyone knows everyone’s names. The conclusion a lot of schools take from these sorts of situation is that they need more CCTV. And it’s true, generally I could track down who he was through the school’s CCTV. As a liberal I am not in favour of CCTV in schools. But in a school where you don’t know every kid’s name – indeed, in a school so big that three or four teachers could be walking down the corridor and still have a good chance of bumping into a kid they didn’t know – it became absolutely invaluable. 

This is a classic example of diseconomies of scale – expanding schools is meant to bring economies of scale.  Actually, to maintain even a semblance of the bonds you have in a smaller school, you need expensive things like a CCTV system, and you need head of year co-ordinators who spend very little time teaching and a lot of time dealing with naughty kids, and you need teachers to spend an awful lot of time tracking down CCTV tapes, ringing round and chasing round the school to find miscreants. Clearly, if this is what happens every time you rebuke a kid you don’t know for misbehaving, you’re not going to rebuke kids you don’t know for misbehaving a lot.  This is exactly what happened. The bar for what I would rebuke for was raised.  If I saw a kid I did know, I would pull them up for having their tie done up wrong or talking too loudly in the corridors. If I saw a kid I didn’t know – which in a school of 2000 is most kids – I would turn a blind eye to all but the most outrageous misdemeanours. That doesn’t make me proud. But I know I’m not alone there.

The one area where I would disagree with Birbalsingh is where she says that small schools are right-wing thinking. I don’t think they are, actually: I don’t think there is anything ideological about this idea at all. I think the reason why bigger schools have become the norm is that it appears more efficient, which appeals to beancounters on both sides of the political divide. In actual fact, as I’ve shown, the economies of scale are completely cancelled out by the diseconomies.

There is more and more evidence that small schools are the way forward. A Bristol head teacher, James Wetz, has done an interesting study on the impact of large schools on troubled pupils.  He compares secondary schools to primary schools, which are generally much smaller and with much more of a community feel, and interviews pupils who did well at primary but dropped out at secondary.  In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell explains some of the science behind this. Apparently the most effective size of a human community is 150.  Throughout history, communities as diverse as Stone Age settlements and Roman armies have been organized on this basis.  But whilst small schools will be cheaper in the long run, I fear that the short-term benefits of big schools will always prove seductive to politicians.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Sensible Guardian article on Lib Dems shock

Ten tips for the Liberal Democrats | Julian Glover | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk

This is about the only sensible commentary on the Lib Dems I have seen in the Guardian over the last week or so. Everything else from them and Labour has been a hate-filled fact-free rant. Where is Labour’s anger coming from? When the Lib Dems went into coalition, I expected Labour to whinge. But this depth of hatred and anger is really quite baffling.Where is Labour’s anger coming from? When the Lib Dems went into coalition, I expected Labour to whinge. But this depth of hatred and anger is really quite baffling. For implementing a policy that Labour advocated in their election manifesto, the Lib Dems have been branded Nazis, social cleansers, advocates of Victorian workhouses and ginger rodents. For winning liberal concessions from a majority Conservative government, Polly Toynbee, Marina Hyde, Johann Hari, Harriet Harman, Tristram Hunt and co have lined up to denounce Lib Dems as traitors.

Part of it is just politics. But part of it goes deeper, I think, and is psychological. Forget the Miliband saga, for a good 20 years the Lib Dems have been seen by Labour as their little brother. And as we know, no-one likes it when their little brother ends up doing better than them. Labour’s current sulk is just a wider institutional version of David Miliband’s. They both need to grow up. For despite the very real differences between the Lib Dems and Labour, the two parties do share a lot in common. If electoral reform does happen, Labour need people like me to give them second preference votes. Even if it doesn’t, the growing pluralism of the British system suggests that there may be more hung parliaments in future. Either way, the sort of vicious tribalism we’ve been seeing over the last couple of days really won’t be good for the Labour party’s long term prospects.

Another Labour whinger

Scrapping EMA is another broken promise from morally broken PM | LabourList.org 2.0.2 | LabourList.org

Yet another Labour whinger going on about EMA. I will say it again, how do they think poor people managed to go to college before 2004? How do they account for the fact that social mobility and educational disadvantage have got worse over the past thirty years? Do you really think that everyone on EMA would drop out of college if they didn't get it? If you accept, as I think all the statistics (not the dodgy NUS ones) show, that many pupils who currently get EMA would stay on without it, then you have to acknowledge that much of that money is being wasted. It would be far less wasteful to establish a pot of money that could go towards helping genuine hardship cases who genuinely benefit from college. If this form of mass subsidy is such an important priority for so many in the Labour party, can any of them tell us what they would cut?

One final point - Robertson quotes a comment from the Save EMA website that really touched him:

Cassie Campbell - “I need EMA my mum is on benefits and I am a full-time student at college without EMA I can’t go to college I will have to drop out and I don’t want to do that”

Call me a callous bastard but should someone who doesn't understand how to write a proper sentence be going to college?

Correlation and Causation

 There was an item on the Today programme yesterday morning about the research Frank Field is doing into poverty, parenting and education. It also referred to a Sutton Trust report that said children from the poorest backgrounds are twice as likely to have behavioural problems at age 5 as more affluent peers. The presenter then made the classic logical error of assuming that because there is a correlation, there must also be causation, and that the causation must run one way, in this case the poverty causing the behavioural problems.  This is utterly utterly absurd. To see how absurd it is, let us consider what would happen if the families of these kids were to win the lottery. Do we really think that those kids would overnight become little angels? Ridiculous. If anything, they'd use their greater spending power to be even more of a nuisance. Joey Barton and Jermaine Pennant didn't have their behavioural problems suddenly cured by a pay packet of several thousand a week.  And yet the principle that giving poor people more money will miraculously improve all of their life outcomes has been the principle that underpinned most of the social policy of the last decade. It completely ignores the fact that culture and values play an enormous part in behaviour and educational success. That's why certain ethnic groups - Chinese girls, for instance - do incredibly well at school despite poverty.  Culture and values don't cost money.

Bridget Phillipson and EMA

Like me, Bridget Phillipson was also eligible for the pilot EMA scheme. Unlike me, she took it up, and in this video claims that without it, whether she would have become an MP 'remains to be seen'.  

This is an incredible claim, and deserves further investigation.  Bridget Phillipson is one of the youngest MPs – not just in this Parliament but ever. She has clearly not achieved this without being extremely hard working, dedicated and intelligent.  According to her website, she joined the Labour party at age 15, well before she had ever heard of EMA.  She must have got exceptionally good results at GCSE, again before she would have been eligible for EMA.  She must have got very good A-level results because she then went to Oxford to study Modern History, so she must have had a lot of innate talent and drive even on top of the EMA. And she is seriously trying to claim that all this talent, all this dedication, all this hard work, could possibly have been cancelled out by the absence of a £20 a week subsidy for two years at age 16? If she hadn’t got that subsidy, she’d have dropped out, waited tables and stopped attending Labour party meetings in order to smoke crack at the local drug den? Utter, utter rubbish. She would have succeeded with or without it, there's no 'remaining to be seen' at all and if she thinks about it I think she knows that too. She’s insulting herself by suggesting her success is mechanistically dependent upon a government programme. She’s insulting her parents – I don’t believe however poor they were that they’d have let her drop out of college for the sake of £20 a week. And she’s insulting all those brave people – from the north east and elsewhere – who struggled successfully against far greater poverty and inequality than she has ever had to confront.

Worse than these insulting implications, however, is the damage this idea does to society.  It suggests that if you don’t succeed in life, it is entirely down to the fact that the state didn’t give you enough money when you were young. This is exactly the attitude I see again and again in the classroom.  Teachers across the country try and give their kids a ‘no excuses’ attitude to get them to overcome petty and sometimes more serious difficulties.  Nothing worthwhile was ever achieved without effort, we say.  We do all this because for very many of our kids, they will use any excuse whatsoever to try and hide the fact that they can’t be bothered.

 But what’s the point in us struggling to get our kids to work hard when the message coming from politicians is: if you fail or drop out, it’s not your fault. It’s the fault of the nasty government for not giving you enough money. If you doubt that the attitudes of politicians and intellectuals influence kids, take a look at the EMA website where a whole gaggle of pupils essentially restate Bridget Phillipson’s argument – if you don’t give me this money, I will be a failure and it will all be your fault. Ever since I started teaching, I became more and more aware of how out-of-touch most politicians are with what actually happens in the public services.  Bridget Phillipson, of course, would never have let the absence of this subsidy deter her from getting a good education. But the idea that she and others like her spread - that their success is down to the munificent bounty of the generous state, and not their own ability - is genuinely believed by many kids out there, those I teach and those all over the EMA website. 

As well as this, the whole thing just reinforces the belief that Labour got us into this mess with ill-judged government giveaways, and are now completely refusing to even consider abolishing any of them. As one of their saner members said, 'we look like we want to die in the ditch for every last Sea Harrier, millionaire’s child benefit payment and pint of student snakebite.' Well quite. The religion of socialism was once the language of priorities, and I can’t imagine any of the 1945 cabinet prioritising giving semi-literate 17 year olds beer money and Apple Macs.