Over the Dinner Table…

5 12 2009

Tonight my parents have had a dinner party, with a small band of their friends encircling our dinner table to laugh and talk about various things with a few bottles of wine handy. As seems inevitable, the conversation turned to politics. Having been invited in to grab some pudding, I found myself unwittingly dragged into the conversation (I hesitate to use the word “argument”), and found myself understanding so many things about the frustrations of the older generations.

To say I became scared of some of the stuff they were saying is perhaps taking it too far, but, through the course of the hour or so I spent listening, there was a frightening amount of stuff that the BNP’s publicist would have been proud of. Starting off with the premise that there are simply too many people in the country, thus necessitating a dramatic cull (we moved from Nazi Germany – with echoes of Nick Griffin’s comment about Hitler going just a bit too far with the Jews – to modern day China in the conversation), one particular member of the party exhibited his own take on the state of the country. Those we kick out of the country (roughly the 15 or so million people which would see our population be taken back down to about 50 million) would have to go somewhere else. Anywhere else. It doesn’t matter, as long as they aren’t on British soil. Look after your own first, then see what’s left to share with the rest of the world.

From there we moved through the problems of industry, religion, education, and class. The continuing theme was not, as I was perhaps expecting it to be, the fault of the current government in these issues; but was instead the larger issue of the psyche of the population. The phrase “white underclass” was one which was casually tossed around and seemed to be the common denominator in the matters. Laziness is to blame for the lack of industry in Britain (we have the know-how, so why don’t we do it anymore?). Religion is emphasised by varying gang cultures which is a product of the “underclasses” (I must have spent roughly ten minutes trying to explain that not all knife and gun crime is committed by black people). The education system is too saturated with children who know too much about the dole, about how to play the system to maximise laziness and reward. So ran, in a nutshell, most of the points that were made.

However, it was not only the fault of the white underclass, it is also the fault of immigrants (we take in way too many for our resources to cope). Having tried to explain Malthusian principles of a checking factor to the group, the response was that it will not be disease as we will simply find a cure. In short, for too many years we, as a country, have been to lax with too many things that we are now at a point where we are going to suffer greatly. Our import/export ratio is woefully imbalanced, our manufacturing industry is all but gone, and our gas and oil reserves are all used up. Or, to put it another way, we’re doomed.

Nor is the future any better, as younger generations are being taught too much in the way of other religions (apparently being indoctrinated into them) by our schooling systems, and they are being taught about gay rights from the age of four. They are becoming adults too quickly, a problem exacerbated by shops selling clothing which encourages them to grow up and act more like an adult from a younger age. Kids aren’t allowed to be kids any more. Apparently.

The problem was, that despite all these problems there were no real workable solutions offered. Getting rid of 15 million people to somewhere else and looking out for ourselves was the ideal principle. Cutting our imports down to provide a stimulus for our manufacturing was another suggestion (but failed to ignore the knock-on effects that that would have on various other trades and indeed, other countries who then grow disillusioned with the severence of economic ties). Starting again and establishing British industry once again to its former levels should be the aim. This industry which grew out of the industrial revolution will be pretty east to kick start as we have all the know-how, it’ll just take a bit of hard work. Apparently.

And yet, despite all this, they all freely admitted that they would not be joining their local political party. They would not be taking any actions as there is simply nothing they can do to stem this tide. And it was at this point I began imagining the same conversations happening in living-rooms, kitchens, dining-rooms, or over the garden fence up and down the country. Whilst the BNP are still largely discredited, it suddenly became so much clearer to me why people would want to vote for them. I maintain it would still be a protest vote, but it is not, as I’d thought, a protest vote against politics, it is a protest vote against the country. And it was then I began to feel uneasy. I’m pretty sure most of the party tonight would not vote BNP, as, for all their gesturing and posturing, they are not racist fools. The tide with which politics is battling is not against the BNP, as I’d have thought. Instead, politics must grapple with the consequences of the last 50 or so years, the decline of the empire, the industry, the rising dissatisfaction at all that has come to pass.

The Conservatives will likely come to office next year, and will be faced with the same problems. Industry will still be gone, the number of migrants will still remain “too many”. Bureaucracy and red tape will have to continue as a definition of our society. What seems to be needed is the foundations of stability need to be relaid. Industry played such a large part in British life for so many years, something needs to replace it, or it needs to be re-grown. I’m really not sure what the solutions are, if indeed there are any.

Tonight was an interesting eye opener, and it was nice to have another view of the world. However the hugely annoying uneasy feeling with which I left the conversation as the coffee arrived still lingers in my stomach, and I’m really not sure how to combat it.


Discriminate This…

9 08 2009

So our esteemed temporary leader (with Harman out of the country the buck stops with him) Lord Mandleson has announced he is considering the idea of giving poorer students a grade boost to help them compete for places at top universities.

This is rubbish.

All this idea does is confirm the view that there is a problem with access to education. It does nothing to provide a sensible long-term solution to the matter. It is yet more proof that positive discrimination is live and kicking in the UK at the moment. I have written about this before, and it is still something which really irks me.

Ok, so there is a problem with who has access to various levels of education. Again, I have written about the growing pressures on the university system before. However, a short-term, blind-sighted view that Mandleson appears to be appropriating here seems so painfully naive. It is simply a quick fix, designed more as a vote winning suggestion than anything substantial to do with policy. I say that for two reasons. The first is simple, the Labour party need all the votes they can get at the up-coming election. By throwing this into the water, they have something with which to attract voters back with.

The second reason seems equally simple, but therein lies my own concerns. It is simply that the idea seems very unconsidered. As the BBC article points out, there is a whole middle group of society who will suffer more from this idea and will be outcast from the better universities simply because there would be a quota of poorer students who ‘have’ to go to any given university. Finally there is the problem of what to do with those richer students/families who study hard, get good grades but have to go to universities lower in the rankings simply because the government has decided that it needs a greater social mix at the top universities.

The suggestion is ludicrous, and shouldn’t get any further than this. However, it will, if not in this form, then in some other. And it will remain stupidly annoying. Positive discrimination is here to stay as long as the Labour party decree it so and lead by such a poor example. It will never, ever solve any problems, and will always be a short-term solution to a larger, longer-term issue. It is nothing more than a daub of paint casually thrown at a wall to hide the two-foot wide crack.

What Do We Learn?

5 08 2009

Firstly, let me apologise for hugely infrequent blogging of late. The last month has been a touch hectic, and hence blogging has fallen to the bottom of my list of priorites. Mind you, at least I’m still here, something I’m not sure can be said of the folks over on the BULS blog.

Anywho, I just wished to write something about the Independent‘s reporting of the SAT’s figures which have come out. I’m guessing (but not knowing) that most other newspapers will have picked up on this too, with some making more of a point out of it than others. Folks, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but SAT’s figures have fallen for the first time in 15 years. Which means that we need to begin panicking because 46,000 11-year-olds cannot read and 39% of students “failed to master the ‘three R’s”.

Except, I remain confused. I thought, given yearly rises in GCSE and A Level results, that exams are getting easier. Aren’t they? Every year another record is broken, and I expect that the results, due out in the next couple of weeks, will again have record levels of something. Students aren’t getting cleverer, the system is making it look that way, or so those who argue about the vaildity of exams claim.

Now, I’m aware that there is a huge difference between SAT’s at 11, and GCSE’s at 16. However, if we are to accept that 11 year olds are getting worse at reading, writing and arithmetic (whoever coined the phrase the ‘three R’s’ obviously had as many problems as the kids do when it comes to spelling), how can we explain the yearly increase in GCSE result averages?

Simply put, the whole thing should be taken with a huge dose of salt. The media jumps on figures (as one wise man once put it, “people can come up with statistics to prove anything. 14% of all people know that”), and either the school kids are over-achieving because of the inadequacies of the system, or they are failing because of the inadequacies of themselves. There seems to be no middle ground, as Richard Gardner writes in his comment on the story in the same paper.

For my part, I’m not to sure about the exams getting ‘easier’. I think back a few years and remember how hard I worked for three consecutive years. That, I’m sure, was not easy (unless there’s some new-fangled dictionary that the kids are learning from these days). What I do think is that the students are learning to play the system better. By which I mean they are learning how to write an answer, rather than how to get the right answer. They are learning exam technique rather than the information to get the right answer. By getting the technique right, the rest becomes irrelevant. In history for example, you don’t have to write a good essay, just construct one (introduction – outline your argument, prioritise your points, explain why one is more or less important, conclude), if you follow the structure, you could, by and large, write rubbish and still do well enough to pass. In maths, you do not have to get the right answer, but demonstrate a way you would use to get the answer, after all, so we were told, you get marks for your ‘working’.

This sort of thing gets taught as much as the correct information, and this is a fault of the system. Whilst it is true that technique is important, it should be that the correct information is of more importance. In maths you should be taught the correct formulae, in history, the correct dates, people etc. This should be the core of teaching, not technique (I remember having a few English classes dedicated to ‘exam technique’ in the months prior to my exams). There is too much emphasis placed on technique, and this is a fault I think exists throughout the system.

There are, of course, other issues with the SAT’s tests and their role in education. I do not wish to talk about these now, simply because there are too many issues to cover here. I will leave it with a quote from Garner’s piece, “it is almost refreshing to know that there is a test where results can down, as well as up.

Ejucashun, Ejucation, Twitter…

25 03 2009

Whilst on my daily trawl through the BBC’s webpages, I found this story and was instantly dismayed. As a history scholar, I firmly believe more should be done to encourage people to question their pasts, and to connect the present with what has gone on before. The suggestions mooted in this report indicate that this is no longer a concern for governmental officials. Instead, it seems, we should be encouraging the ‘life skills’ of how to use Twitter, or how to blog.

Lets deal with this in three parts:

1. The suggestions seem to point to the idea that using Twitter is an important thing for children to learn. It is almost certainly not just Twitter but every social networking site going, but for the sake of convenience, Twitter will be used. I have a huge problem with this. The childhood stage of life is an important one in terms of building relationships with people, or at least learning how to do so. Kids learn moral and social things, you don’t pull people’s hair, you don’t hit people, you don’t bully people etc etc. They learn this through experiencing things, through doing, and through the repercussions of their actions. Kids learn how to talk to people, how to interact with others and communicate themselves. Again, they do this through actions. If we add Twitter into this, how much of a negative effect will this have on how they learn to build relationships with other people? I would suggest it would be a massive effect. No longer would it be necessary for children to talk to each other, when they can type instead. No longer would it be fun to go and play in the park with their mates because they could be interacting online instead. Twitter would begin to destroy how kids learn, rather than giving them the skills necesary. So yes, while they may learn to type, they will stop learning how to talk.

2. The report also mentions blogging. It seems to want to encourage more children to want to use blogs as a source of information, and to take up writing their own stuff. Why? Not all people are comfortable writing in the first place, never mind in a public access site. Why exacerbate things for those who do not want to write or use blogs?

Also, I’m going to throw into this Wikipedia, which is also mentioned in the report. Apparently, according to this write up of the story, “Children [are] to leave primary school familiar with blogging, podcasts, Wikipedia and Twitter as sources of information“. Great. This though assumes one very important thing. That Wikipedia is right. Which, as we all know, it is not necessarily. Indeed we have been told on countless occasions not to use Wikipedia as a credible source for work as accuracy cannot be guarenteed.

3. It was though the final point of the BBC’s first paragraph which irked me the most though. All this is come come at the expense of history. At least, that’s the impression it gave. Further reading indicates that this is not the case, although schools will have the ability to choose which periods should be taught with the goal to be:

By the end of the primary phase, children should have gained an overview which enables them to place the periods, events and changes they have studied within a chronological framework, and to understand some of the links between them.

Great. They will not be taught about possibly two of the three most important parts of modern British history, but instead whatever takes the teachers fancy at the start of the year. Now I get that the Second World War is still part of later academic life, and, to some extent, so is the Victorian era. But what else is there of significance that can be taught? The First World War? No-one understands that, let alone primary school kids. At least the Second World War had the ‘bad guy’ in Hitler. What does World War One have? Nothing, it was fighting for the sake of fighting. I would suggest it is better to sow the seeds of curiosity when children are more receptive to ideas. They can then follow this up and develop an interest later on in their academic lives.

I really do not think that further use of Twitter, Wikipedia et al should be encouraged. Many people are already moaning that there is too much exposure to the internet and computers, so surely encouraging further exposure should be frowned upon? At a period where we are frequently told of the growing obesity problem, surely placing kids in front of another screen cannot help? I’m still not sure what was wrong with classrooms and books personally.

Just as a note, reading some of the comments about this story, this one has to be my favourite:

Im sure its just a coincidence the second world war where we fought against fascism is removed from the curriculum as our government becomes more fascist and controlling,

To cynical for my own good sometimes

The writer later admits that the Second World War is not being removed at all, but the point still made me chuckle.

An Interesting Comparison…

8 12 2008

I was watching Long Way Down with Euan McGregor and Charlie Boorman last night for the first time. They had reached central Africa on their second journey and it was an interesting watch as they visited Ugandan rehab camps for child soldiers. It was though the visit they made to the war-torn country of Rwanda that was of more interest though. I will admit that other than knowing of the genocide, I knew little of the state of affairs of Rwanda over the course of the past half a century. The impression from the programme was that Rwanda was recovering very well after such a tragic happening (put into context by another stat I heard this weekend: there was more killed in Rwanda than there were British deaths in the First World War). People were cheerful and looking forward (this despite accusations of War Crimes in direction to their president) and the nature of the country was that it was hard to imagine such acts (albeit the presentation in the programme demonstrated it as such).

More noteworthy though was the attitude towards education. The children wanted to learn, to get educated and to give themselves the best possible start. My experience of Africa is similar, as children and adults alike are keen to learn a much as they can. It was my mum though that made a good point, comparing such desire for education in Africa to the apparent lack of interest in children of Britain at the moment.

Whilst it is too easy to suggest that more kids don’t care about education than do, it is not a stretch, I feel, to suggest that there is nowhere near the same fervour for education amongst those in Britain.

It is examples such as these which makes me think that we can become too easily forgetful of what we have in Britain. We are lucky to be able to get an education, to build our lives, and not be fearful of war of genocide tearing apart our society. Watching programmes such as these serves to help us remember our own situation and appreciate how fortunate we are.

Those Who Can, Do. Those Who Can’t, Teach.

16 06 2008

Every so often a story catches my eye. So it was the case here. Whilst browsing the various BBC headlines for the first time in about a week, I came across this story. I was taken by it, it is such a simple concept, yet one which remains largely unexplored.

The group of A Level students have taken it upon themselves to petition the PM to create a GCSE option in politics, a subject not available until A Level. I have written before on how young people should be before they get involved in any form of politics. I failed to reach a suitable judgement. There are many problems to the idea of creating a new option at GCSE, especially one relating to politics.

I didn’t study politics at A Level, with hindsight perhaps I should have (although if I had done all the A Levels I wanted to, I would have wound up with about 8). I know many people in my school (granted it was not a representative sample of the population as a whole) who would have loved doing politics instead of the compulsory language, or in place of either Art or DT.

Would a GCSE in politics encourage more people to take an interest in politics? I know I would like to think so, but there is a nagging feeling I have about it. Could it not have the adverse effect? Could it not put people off from a young age? There is the potential, but if the option is just that, optional, surely you would only have people who actually want to study it? At least more than German. I think the option could be a interesting one to have, if only to get more young people interested in political issues. Encouraging them to engage with various issues relating to politics perhaps is a good idea.

The trouble is, how many people would do it? If politics is not something which interests you, making it just another subject, on a par with German or French, or any other compulsory subject that young people dislike might be a bad thing. By the time they reach A Levels, any interest has been sown, and, as more mature individuals, are able to choose their options much more freely, and easily.

So I have my reservations about this idea, but I do admire the students for running with it, and wish them all the best. If you do want to sign the petition, it is available here.

Just one more quick thing. Whilst looking through the Downing Street website I was surprised by sheer number of petitions, which obviously mean something to someone, but, in reality will not get that far.

The Merits of a Good Education…

9 06 2008

Summer is traditionally exam time for many thousands of students across the country. For many years they have had it drilled into them that exams are important markers in your life. Without good exam results you cannot get anywhere, and only the best results get somewhere. It is with this ethos in mind that I will watch the final of the BBC’s series The Apprentice on Wednesday.

In case you do not watch it, there are four candidates left to fill one role, namely that of the title (although I remain unclear as to exactly what the role is or indeed entails). All four candidates have, over the course of ten or so weeks proved themselves to be very able at different aspects of business, and all would be a significant gain for most multi-national corporations, in my opinion at least. Of these four candidates, two went to university (one did ‘Managerial Administrative Studies’ and the other did ‘Equine Studies’), the other two dropped out of education after their GCSE’s. As far as education goes, these appear to be (with the one exception) reasonably distant from the creme-de-la-creme of the British educational system. It is these four people who are vying for a position working with Sir Alan Sugar. It is not the guy who was the most qualified (he was fired in week one).

Obviously in the world of business, experience will get you far. Other attributes count for something rather than the letters on a page handed out in August. A rounded individual counts for something more than a person who has 5 A Levels but no other interests.

That is not to say education does not count, far from it. However, as students up and down the land are in the middle of stressing about their exams, it perhaps should be reminded to them that, despite their thoughts, exams are not the be-all and end-all that many adults like to pretend they are.