Only a few days ago the Financial Times was the être porteur de mauvaises nouvelles, revealing that in the west the yacht industry was on the downturn. “Financial and economic crisis in the west has crippled some European yachtmakers”, we were told, except that the super rich, “led by Gulf sheikhs and Russian tycoons”, were doing their bit to help out, adding super yachts to their “country houses and executive jets”.
“Prices and customers’ names”, we are reminded, “are frequently kept secret to shield owners from accusations of ostentatious living [but] The largest vessels cost well over $100m and can cost more than $1m a week to charter.”
Give or take £5m, that’s roughly how much Liberal Democrats have estimated the cost of this yacht, which Michael Gove is talking about, will cost the taxpayer, as a gift to the Queen, at a time of austerity.
But for this money we’re talking about a yacht that is roughly 70m. Why not a smaller one? Why not one half that size? Why not bin the idea altogether.
For that money councils could reverse cuts being made. £60m in cuts have been made in the following:
Westminster Conservatives have revealed their plans to slash £60 million from the Council’s budget over the next three years in order to fill the £20 million a year black hole in the Council’s finances caused by the Council’s failure to accurately predict the amount of income they would get from parking charges and parking fines.
You have to ask yourself which planet Gove is on – and why his inside voice is flapping away when the microphone is recording.
Continuing what seems to be this week’s Economist-watch, there was an article on Cameron’s Big Society ideas, and how, despite myriad flaws with the concept, this part of the Tory manifesto simply wasn’t going to go away.
What the Economist doesn’t note, of course, is that with regard to public institutions such as libraries, this ‘renaissance of voluntarism’ (I kid you note – that’s a direct quote) basically means trying to replace paid experts with ‘volunteers’, to do the same job – thus killing jobs and strong unions in one go, and getting rid, incidentally, of the one way in which anyone other than the government could determine how our libraries are run – by trade union action.
That’s by the by.
What interested me was the way in which the Big Society is presented as regards democratic theory. Everyone knows how representative bodies work. We elect people on the basis of what we think they will do. The Economist presents Big Society as aiming to push one step past this, devolving power to “nano” level.
“Traditionally, [giving powers away] meant beefing up Britain’s important local authorities. But Mr Cameron wants to push power further down, to the ‘nano’ level. This vision sees parents helping to set up new schools, public-sector workers running their own services as co-operatives, and small groups of people volunteering on local projects.”
I would like to take a shot at arguing that this method is far from more democratic than the alternative of strong local authorities. Tory Co-ops and the small groups (or large groups, as Paul has taken to pieces the Tory ‘5000 community organisers‘ policy, billed before the General Election) of volunteers, this blog has dealt with at length. What about the parents helping to set up new schools?
Beyond basic educational concerns (e.g. the integrity of the scientific method, or preventing History relapsing into a paean to Empire, with the concomitant racism), I fail to see that allowing different sections of the community to hive off their children is especially democratic. Certainly in theory it gives a great deal of power to the parents, though as Fiona Millar rightly said in a recent Guardian debate, in reality this usually translates to devolving power to some charity or private provider, with parents unlikely even to be involved in choosing or supervising the headmaster.
But in order to do this, it’s directing resources away from other state schools in the area. So the plan risks creating excess capacity at the expense of other children. There’s also the point that each school has an optimum number of pupils; enough to make economies of scale, few enough to render the school environment safe and manageable. Free schools make this impossible to plan for.
The argument, made by Anders Hultin, chief executive of Gems UK, a private company intending to step into this scheme to start opening schools for profit, is that if the market was allowed to handle the Tory policy, schools would only open in areas with pre-existing demand. I find fault with this argument – demand doesn’t just exist, it can also be whipped up artificially. This is what advertising is for.
So there are ‘externalities’, if you like, to allowing for the willy-nilly creation of new schools (and Cameron’s talk of the actual buildings these free schools might use makes my toes curl). There’s also the more vague externality of permitting further segregation of the school-age populace. Further privatisation of education will be felt in the opposition created between the success of ‘my child’ and the success of every child.
Rather than fix the state system, which should also be much more accountable, via elected school boards and local education authorities, there’s the impetus to simply jump ship. Better education requires more money, intelligently spent, and high-quality teaching. But no more money is being offered and it should be a warning bell that the Dept. of Education is advertising free schools in the same way as Academies: as being exempt from the national collective bargaining agreements with NASUWT and the NUT.
If democracy is the theory that every person should have a say in decisions which affect them, then allowing people to hive themselves into free schools or, or be scaremongered into hiving themselves off, violates that principle. The effects of that decision run far beyond any parents who might be involved, to the whole teaching profession, to the whole of the education system and to whole local areas where allocation of funding must be altered.
In fact, if Academies are anything to go by, and Gove seems to think they’re a useful parallel, then the very parents and teachers responsible for free schools might end up feeling just as excluded.
Reading over the speech Michael Gove made to the Conservative Conference, I’m glad that I’m already trying to get out of teaching. If the period of the last twelve years in education has been marked by increasing spin, pointless bureaucracy and policy announcements, the next five under a Conservative government appear unlikely to be any different, judging by the Shadow minister for Children, Schools and Families. In fact, in some aspects, the future promises to be worse, with plans to turn our kids into ‘patriotic’ automatons.
Most of the words that come out of Gove’s mouth are in fact piffle; meaningless. They only have meaning and relevance to a lot of people who for years have been imbibing every scare story printed in the Daily Mail about riotous kids and political correctness gone mad. Gove praises a headteacher who apparently spoke to the Conservative conference:
“He insists on a proper uniform – with blazer and tie – respect for authority, clear sanctions for troublemakers and no excuses for bad behaviour. He sets classes by ability – so the brightest can be stretched and the weakest given special support.
He teaches traditional subjects in a rigorous way and when the bureaucrats try to insert the latest fashionable nonsense into the curriculum he tells them where to get off.
There are fantastic extra-curricular activities, proper competitive sports and an amazing team of teachers – who work into the evenings and on Saturdays to give their pupils the best possible chance in life. Why isn’t every state school like that?”
Except that most schools have a proper uniform, “respect for authority”, clear sanctions, classes by ability and support for the weakest. Except that not every school is funded to the same degree and thus you have secondary schools which can afford special units for literacy and so forth, while others languish. So in the first sentence above, Gove is not proposing anything new – and he will find, if he gets his feet underneath the ministerial desk, that his hot air counts for very little when set against the cuts by which the Tories are promising to outdo their Labour equivalents, against even capitalist economic sense.
Of course it wouldn’t be Conservative conference is someone didn’t get a dig in at the curriculum. Yet, perhaps overcome by the sort of adrenaline-testosterone high that waving your cock about on stage tends to give, Gove has said something patently stupid. He has conjured up the image of the heroic headteacher fending off the bureaucrats; except that the headteacher in question is from an Academy, a group of schools to which Labour gave specific powers to shape their own curriculum. Whoops.
Not that I’m praising the system of Academies: despite double-figure millions being poured into such schools, some forty of them are still failing. Apparently the all-conquering initiative and cost-efficiency of private and third sector enterprise isn’t so all-conquering. As for the rest, where Gove discusses extra-curricular activities etc, every State school is like that. I have spent my fair share of evenings after school and friends of mine have spent their fair share of Saturdays running activities for the kids.
Even where there are no Saturday activities, the government’s Extended Schools programme is pushing every state school to offer more services during the week – whether it is breakfast club or track and field competitions. Even some of the worst schools in this part of the country are fiercely competitive at sport – the Abbey School in Faversham, for example. So Gove is laying out nothing new – but what I suspect will happen is that even more pressure is piled on without funds or personnel to achieve the goals, and yet more teachers will suffer.
Gove’s not done there though. Other pointless declarations include giving “teachers effective power to confiscate banned items and restrain violent pupils”, powers which we already have and which are clearly laid out for every new teacher. We can confiscate anything and we can restrain any pupil who is a danger to themselves or others. Plenty of state schools even have teachers given a free period once a week to wander the halls and to call into classrooms to ensure that the teacher has an effective grip on classroom discipline.
There’s also the claim that the Tories will
“…change the law so that when a head teacher expels a violent pupil– that pupil cannot plead that his human rights have been violated and then stick two fingers up to authority.”
When I was at school, I was part of the movement which organised a walk out on Day X, the day the bombing of Iraq began in 2003, I was lucky, in that some three hundred pupils walked out of my school and there was safety in numbers. A friend of mine was expelled from his school, however. He took the school to court, arguing that the expulsion was a victimisation of political dissent – which it was, whatever bureaucratic language one wishes to dress it up in. School kids, like any other section of the workforce, have the right to withdraw their consent from the State.
Walking out of school was our way of showing it – and it was remarkably successful. Literally thousands of school kids all around Northern Ireland took a (brief) interest in what was going on when people their own age began getting interviews on local and national radio stations in the run up to the outbreak of war. When war happened anyway, interest waned, which is to be expected – but the actual gesture changed the attitude of many young people. Protecting that right is important – and the basic point is that authority is not always right.
I was threatened with expulsion not just for organising the walkout but also for speaking on the radio and identifying myself as a student of Our Lady and St. Patrick’s College, Knock. The principal was raging because I brought the school into what he called ‘disrepute’ and he and the Vice-Principle kept me behind school one day in order to lecture me about appropriate behaviour. If I had been kicked out of school, it would have been a flagrant breach of my right to free speech. The sort of human right which kids don’t have, when it comes to school, according to Michael Gove.
Other elements to Gove’s speech are simply the re-announcement of existing policies, such as city technical schools to supply apprenticeships, which have existed since John Major’s government if not before and have continued under Labour. The only seeming exception is covered by Lee Griffin at Liberal Conspiracy.
Talk of social mobility rings a bit hollow in the mouth of Michael Gove when we know the cap for third-level education fees will be coming off under the next government. It rings hollow when we realise that no matter how hard anyone – everyone – works, poverty, deprivation and worklessness will continue to exist under capitalism and potentially get worse if George Osborne gets his wish to attack the deficit by massively slashing government expenditure – some of which keeps people in socially useful jobs. Like, er, teachers, teaching assistants and their support.
Then there are the elements to Gove speech which are plain fabrication or wishful thinking:
“Teachers have been deprived of professional freedom, denied the chance to inspire children with a love of learning and dragooned into delivering what the bureaucrats decree.
And we’ll ensure that experts in every field – especially mathematicians, scientists, technicians and engineers – can make a swift transition into teaching so our children have access to the very, very best science education”.
Teachers do not deliver what the bureaucrats decree. Most teachers, though I will explicitly limit this to my own experience, deliver what they want – and so long as it gets results, no one asks any questions. So long as the teacher controls the class and the exam results reach the expected target, teachers are left to do what they want. Even in terms of teaching methods, which Ofsted can be shit-hot on seeking, so long as a teacher makes a few gestures towards active learning (which actually works), then they’ll get a grade one on their observations.
As for ensuring that “experts in every field…can make a swift transition into teaching” I will be watching that policy with eyes glued. The few “experts” in their field – PhDs in history and chemistry and so on – that I’ve seen try and cut it as teachers failed miserably. They weren’t cut out for speaking in front of a class, or class discipline or some other aspect of teaching. Which isn’t something to be ashamed of because teaching is a hard job. These experts were weeded out at PGCE or GTP or NQT level, during training. So any policy planning to fast-track experts better have exactly the same safeguards as the extended training, and I doubt that it will.
This rant could continue but I shall end it with the following:
“There is no better way of building a modern, inclusive, patriotism than by teaching all British citizens to take pride in this country’s historic achievements. Which is why the next Conservative Government will ensure the curriculum teaches the proper narrative of British History – so that every Briton can take pride in this nation.”
What is surprising is just how similar this is to Labour ideas from the most recent version of the national curriculum. So similar, in fact, that there’s no difference. Every Key Stage 3 class studies British history from 1066 to late 20th Century. All the key periods are there: the wars with France, the English Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the world wars and so on. The ‘historic achievements’ notably left off are the millions of people the British Empire killed through mass starvation, war, colonization and the occasional genocide.
Which seems to match up precisely with what Gove wants us to teach. It’s bullshit. Any self-respecting academic would choke to see the sort of drivel that gets ladled out for KS3 history. Names, dates, places, inventions. Causes are occasionally talked about but these are largely focused on individuals; Did Charles cause the English Civil War? The fight between crown and church becomes a tiff between Henry II and Thomas Becket. Actually some of this is unfair; on subjects like the Crusades, the new Folens books are excellent, especially on religion.
My point, however, is that the “achievements” of this country are often achieved or paid for by one part (the rich part) employing another part (usually poor) to slaughter and rob the rest of the poor part, or the Catholic part, or the ancestors of the immigrant parts: Pakistani, Indian, Middle-Eastern, African or Afro-Carribean. I’d teach that til the cows came home, then point to the Tory Party with the words “And those fuckers are the ones who sat back and got rich off all of it”. Then see how happy Michael Gove is when confronted with a generation aware of real ‘British’ history.
Truly there is little difference between Tory and Labour education policy. They’re both equally rubbish. The only difference is in emphasis; whereas the Tories want teachers to construct a semiotic civic code based on “modern patriotism”, Labour call that “multiculturalism”. Where the Tories simplistically emphasize “discipline” and attack “bureaucracy”, in their bid to win Daily Mail approbation, Labour are more about the multisyllabic spinning into six paragraphs of what could be said in one – but the actual proposals are relatively similar.
So once again the country seems set to elect a party which can talk a good show to its supporters whilst fundamentally changing nothing. The real change is being exacted by ‘economic circumstances’, forcing cuts, in which Labour are equally complicit. The bottom line: if you want education reform don’t vote for New Labour MPs and certainly don’t vote Tory.