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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Gove’

The haves and have-yachts

January 16, 2012 1 comment

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:

A package of £60m cuts over 12 months has been backed by Norfolk County Council at a meeting.

1,500 jobs face axe in Bolton council cuts worth £60m

Nottingham Community Protection – a body made up of police and city council staff – estimates £60 million will be slashed from its budgets.

Council bosses in Northumberland say they are “sailing into uncharted waters” as they face up to the task of finding £60m in budget savings this year.

Haringey Council could be hit by cuts of £60 million over the next three years under the Government’s comprehensive spending review to be announced this month.

Lewisham is currently consulting over how to cut its budget by £60 million, a figure that has been the target since before the election.

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.

Warwickshire County Council will have to make a cut in its budget of £60 million over the next four years with more than 1,800 of its staff facing the axe.

You have to ask yourself which planet Gove is on – and why his inside voice is flapping away when the microphone is recording.

Courtesy of Heard in London

Big society, education and democracy

August 1, 2010 13 comments

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.

Boris and Latin: how to kill two birds with one headbutt

March 18, 2010 8 comments

London Mayor Boris Johnson has written to Michael Gove, to protest that Latin is not part of the national curriculum. The idea of writing to the shadow Education minister is the result of a hissy fit between Balls and Johnson, in which BoJo said he wanted to headbutt Balls after the latter was very dismissive of Latin.

Lest we forget, however, it was the decision of a Tory government to create a National Curriculum and leave Latin off it that did for Latin in schools. Uptake dropped from 16,000 to 11,000  in the following ten years. Since then Latin has actually been recovering as a subject. This is not a side issue, it is central to Boris’ complaint and he misses it.

Instead Johnson invokes the spectre of class war in his Telegraph column, written as a reply to Ed Balls’ comments, quoted below. What would Geoffrey de Ste. Croix have made, says Boris, of the attempt by Labour to restrict study of the ancient world to the bourgeoisie?

De Ste. Croix was one of my heroes at university, and I loyally pitted many of his theories against all comers when essay time rolled around. But Boris’ focus on class bypasses the key issues.

Fetishizing Latin

‘Speaking on the radio, Spheroids dismissed the idea that Latin could inspire or motivate pupils he said that headteachers often took him to see the benefits of dance, technology or sport but added:

“No one has ever taken me to a Latin lesson to make the same point. Very few parents are pushing for it, very few pupils want to study it.”’  (Boris Johnson quotes Ed Balls, in the Telegraph)

Let me begin by saying Balls is wrong and shamefully offensive to the hundreds of dedicated teachers, academics, pupils and parents who have fought for their subject, which has steadily gained ground. I can only thank the stars that this attitude wasn’t in evidence when OCR threatened to cut subjects like Ancient History from their range of A-levels.

Boris Johnson’s attitude, however, is prejudiced towards a subject he loves, and with no solid basis. The following is the crown of his arguments to Michael Gove, echoed almost word for word in the Telegraph piece;

“We cannot possibly understand our modern world unless we understand the ancient world that made us all and there is simply no better way than to make young minds think in a logical and analytical way.”

There’s nothing there that’s incorrect, it just doesn’t prove that we need Latin as part of the national curriculum. Young minds can think in logical and analytical ways in a range of subjects. All of them, come to that. And as for needing to understand the ancient world that made us all, there’s the question of which ancient world.

If we’re going to study Roman civilization, what about Greek? That isn’t covered by Latin. If Roman and Greek, what about Chinese? Egyptian? Central American? All widespread civilizations which shaped the world. Even if we remain Eurocentric, what about the years between the fall of Rome and the arrival of the Normans?

As I make it, we’d need Classical Greek, Near-Eastern Greek, Byzantine Greek, Old Latin, and Old and Middle English to grasp all the relevant sources – and that’s just from the point of view of the dominant literary trends. What about Old and Middle Irish and the perspectives of the other minorities for which extensive writings survive?

Johnson fetishizes Latin, which is not unusual for someone of his political persuasion and education. If Balls’ mistake is to dismiss Latin, Johnson’s mistake is equally as bad, if less offensive; it is to elevate Latin out of all proportion. When trying to sell the idea to Heads, it’s the prestige people think goes with offering Latin that often counts.

This is a hangover from the days when Classicists ruled the British Empire and the world. It is class based. Just not in the rather petty way that Balls’ suggests, with the subtext of his comment being that Latin is elitist, or in the way Boris Johnson makes out, that it’s the gateway to all higher things and that the plebs should get their turn.

How do you solve a problem like the content of the national curriculum?
More important than this is that the debate highlights the problem of an overly-centralized education system. Parents and pupils should have a much greater degree of input into what subjects local schools offer, based on the needs and preferences of the catchment area. Beyond English, Maths and Science, choice should lie with parents.

In reality, Boris Johnson’s solution is no solution; adding Latin to the national curriculum just squeezes time for other things, for everyone, regardless of whether they want to study it or not. Eventually there’ll be others with similar arguments that a given subject is so central, everyone should be forced to study it at some point up to KS3.

What we should be demanding is a mechanism whereby parents can gather enough support to prove to LEAs that their area can sustain a certain subject, and a mechanism for parents to ensure the LEA takes steps to increase provision to meet requirements.

Details such as how this localised decision making would relate to national planning for teacher training are needed, but ultimately it kills two birds with one almighty headbutt: first, the centralised nature of decision making, second, the inadequate provision for popular subjects such as Latin. Everyone wins, and Boris’ class war is averted.

At least until the Tory cuts kick in.

Read more…

The educationally challenged Conservative Party

October 9, 2009 13 comments

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.

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