Tag Archives: Gove

The impact of “impossible question” is impossible to calculate


http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-13627415

Follow the above link and you’ll find a news story about an “impossible question” set in an AS exam last week.

The most baffling and infuriating aspect of this story is the response of the exam board, OCR. They have apologised profusely for the error and they insist that “procedures are in place” to deal with such things. They have contacted the schools involved to reassure them that their pupils will be treated fairly.

OCR claim that they will take into account the disruptive effects of the impossible Maths problem. It was literally impossible, not just hard. And inevitably some students won’t have figured this out.

OCR say that they will work out which pupils DID figure out the sum was impossible. They will reward those who show the correct working out and readjust their grading scales to cope with the time students will have wasted on the eight mark question; a substantial amount in a 72 mark paper.

It seems reasonable that OCR will take these steps to mark appropriate working out positively and adjust their marking as a whole. But students are calling for a complete retake of the paper on social networks. And I think they should get one.

Whatever “systems” or “procedures” OCR may have in place, calculating the levels of stress caused by the unfortunate typo and how this affected the rest of an otherwise intelligent student’s performance, is as impossible as the un-answerable question they set in the exam. It really is astounding sometimes just how ignorant of the realities of taking an exam these exam boards can be. Or perhaps they are just selfish.

Organising retakes, particularly ones where the organisation must foot the bill, is costly and time consuming. Sorting this out in a truly fair way is not in the interests of OCR. And yet today’s younger generations are constantly trampled underfoot by protestors about the decline in standards of modern education.

Is it any wonder young people can’t properly prove themselves when the system continually falls foul to cock-up after cock-up? It’s an absolute disgrace that there are any errors at all in exam papers but they are there all the time. Most are not as crucial as this one, but typos crop up in almost every examination without fail. If there is a decline in standards it is not with the intelligence of students, but with the way they are being assessed.

I am sorry for such a rant about a seemingly minor and mildly funny news story. But it’s not funny for those involved and teenagers making themselves ill with the pressure of trying to succeed. High achievers and hard workers still exist, producing young adults as intelligent and as ambitious and well meaning as in the past.

Politicians use slogans like “broken Britain” to scare voters into supporting them. They tap into the fears of the elderly and adult about growing disrespect amongst emerging generations. But all the time they are conceding control of bodies and organisations that ought to be serving communities and students, thus losing the right to respect amongst clever young people who deserve their own.

David Cameron’s Big Society rhetoric might make use of such a monumental mistake from a bureaucratic body like OCR but what does he actually have to say about fixing such common problems? He rants against paper pushing and champions efficiency starting at a local level but provides no money or support for it to happen. Likewise Labour’s opposition moans about the destruction of Britain’s cultural heritage, without saying how it would save it in government.

Politics does little to earn the respect and admiration of pupils. Neither do “professional” educators who rush out text books and muck up exams. Teachers, for the most part, still do a good job, but not all the time. I don’t know where from but perhaps those who worry and pick at the next generation, would like to find some worthy role models for it.

In this case though, serves these kids right for taking a subject as dull and dreary as Maths.

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Library Love: Do the closures really matter? – Reading and Writing Challenge Month


I’ve never been a library lover. I’ve never taken to sitting there, in some dusty corner of my local archive of books, losing myself not just to the act of reading but the musty, hushed atmosphere of the place itself. I don’t depend on libraries for my books. I haven’t been to one in years.

When it was announced that libraries across the country would be closed down, I was frankly unmoved and more concerned about prioritising the threats of more devastating cuts to public services and investment. Reading will not end without libraries. In many ways they are outdated and unappealing. The future of reading, writing and knowledge lies elsewhere.

But recently I’ve been thinking about the issue again. And it’s certainly wrong that the Coalition are getting away with the quiet removal of libraries and other amenities, just because they happen to be less important than other areas in danger of being swallowed by the avalanche of cuts. The government is constantly striving to be radical, often for no practical reason. In all their years of opposition our current leaders appear to have built up such extreme levels of restless energy that they desire to drastically change everything, regardless of its merits. Some things are less broken than others; they should stop wasting time and money by meddling in too many areas.

I’m not saying libraries do not require government attention. Part of my attitude to them is down to the problems of the system. However they are also something that democratic, educated, developed nations, ought to be preserving rather than eradicating.

As I’ve said, my view of libraries is largely passionless. But once, reading both the novel Fahrenheit 451 and an explanatory introduction from its author, Ray Bradbury, I was entranced by the power, mystique and heritage of the institution that is the library. Across the world they have been the foundations of our knowledge, the records of our history, for centuries, if not millennia. Particularly in modern Britain they are vital bastions of cultural identity and heritage; a heritage the government is unthinkingly decimating with its deficit hacking cuts. Most of the cultural organisations hit by the government’s spending plans require little funding but produce massively disproportionate benefits. The case for the pluses of cutting them is wafer thin.

I began by stating that I had never been a library lover. This isn’t 100% true. As a boy, my attachment to reading began with the free books of the local library. Back then I discovered that an hour is better spent with a book than a games console, and that hour would be unbeatably absorbing. I only read trashy children’s and teen fiction, detective stories like the Hardy boys for example, but gazing around at the shelves it was then I knew that the written word and the ability to devour them was the gateway to entire worlds and experiences and information.

I still didn’t like reading in the library itself, an unattractive mid 20th century building, but I liked taking the books home. I liked that it was free and always remembered that reading needn’t be expensive from then on. I liked learning how to interact with the librarian and make my choice. It taught me more than just the importance of reading. Of course then I didn’t realise how meagre and disappointing the choice at my local library really was. That’s the main reason I abandoned it at quite a young age, and the same factor behind me shunning my school library as a source of information and a place of work throughout my school years.

I still think that only the most wonderfully impressive libraries retain a magical air; provide the sort of feeling I got for them reading Fahrenheit 451. Great historical libraries with their own stories and vast collections are beautiful, captivating buildings. Even an ordinary academic library, when devoted to your favourite subject, can be inspiring. Whilst regular local libraries lack the architectural magnificence and legacy, they remain vital lifelines, if only for a handful in the community.

 David Cameron’s Big Society, “DIY” and “help yourself get on in life” message, is in many ways perfectly encapsulated by the library. And yet he cuts them. He removes hundreds of local centres for people looking to educate themselves, for children encouraged into reading and away from useless, sometimes harmful diversion. Instead of getting rid of libraries he should be increasing access to them and strengthening the ones that are already there; with wider stock and more attractive, better designed spaces. The Prime Minister’s political party no longer seem worthy of the name “Conservative” but the changes they propose are hardly for the better. I’ve made it pretty clear here that libraries have not been integral to my reading life for a long time. But it seems to me that the Big Society, if it is a real concept at all, would depend on community assets like the library for cohesiveness and development.

Obviously I don’t think we’re heading for quite the apocalyptic decline in information and knowledge vividly rendered in Fahrenheit 451. But Bradbury’s work highlighted that reading and access to learning can be a right as much as health care can be in civilized, fair society. And with the decline of independent bookstores and even Waterstones, libraries could have remained an inexpensive safeguard and positive starting point for the young. In a way the cuts have rallied some communities around their local library. But most will simply fade away, like so much else to be cut under this government. I feel part of a generation that is less widely read than any before it at times. So for me, for nostalgia’s sake at least, the loss of libraries is a grave mistake and a regrettable shame. They should not be allowed to die enveloped by the silence demanded within their walls; a nationwide, noisy debate about the future of reading should begin.

A History of Contradictions: Freedom, Servitude and Niall Ferguson


Last week I rekindled my love for History and looked forward excitedly to the day I would begin my own studies of the subject. Attending a friend’s lecture on Freedom and Servitude at York University, I was reminded of the myriad of issues and possibilities that arise studying the subject, and the endless opportunities for arguing varied points of view. The lecturer did an admirable job, without a PowerPoint presentation, of skimming through an incredibly contentious theme of history in a thought provoking way. He never became boring or grating, alleviating heavy philosophy and figure based sections of his speech with lighter links to an interview with Kate Moss in Grazia about her idea of freedom and an amusing, scandalous Bible story used as bewildering justification for the slave trade for centuries.

I made my own notes and learnt that Harvard scholar Orlando Patterson described freedom as an under theorized concept; something which made a lot of sense. Like love or beauty, freedom is something easier to understand through experience and hard to articulate. Its vagueness adds to its allure though. Equally interesting is that some cultures, particularly in Asia, attach much less importance to what we in the West might term “freedom” or liberty. In Japan they have no word for freedom. Our guilt and direct experience of slavery has led to a freedom fetish in our culture, stemming particularly from the American fascination with it.

The lecture rose numerous other interesting points, which it is not my intention to delve into here. It highlighted aspects of history, such as Greek and Roman dependence on slaves, and the cultural slavery instigated by some tribes, never so much as touched on at school. But crucially its conclusion threw up a controversy, a set of conflicting views about the overall interpretation of slavery.

Traditionally it’s assumed that after the Declaration of Independence in America, the North phased out slavery, and the South didn’t, which led to Civil War and the North imposed the right way on the South. But the North continued to condone slavery in several ways and the push for freedom was far from strong and complete. Inequality would remain even as slavery faded, as any minor knowledge of the civil rights movement will reinforce. The challenge to conventional history then, was did Americans, be it the establishment or the majority or whoever, realise in some way that their considerable freedom depended upon the servitude of others? Just as Sparta’s mechanised and elitist form of society in Ancient Greece depended on the labour of enslaved Helots, did the blossoming prosperity of white Americans depend on the comparable hardships of their black workers?

I relish the considerable crossover with other subjects in History; be it politics, literature or philosophy. And in philosophical terms the conclusion of the lecture could be boiled down to: can freedom exist without slavery, or vice versa? Something that’s always appealed to both the realist and idealist in me is that things can simultaneously be their opposites. By this I mean, as Orwell notoriously wrote in 1984, “Freedom is Slavery”. Perhaps one really cannot exist without the other. I think that when studying History it helps to remember that there will always be a contradictory view and that just because it might completely oppose the more sensible option, does not mean it does not have value or truth or validity. I’m not expressing myself very well, but hopefully my point will become clearer.

I’ve always admired the historian Niall Ferguson. I discovered him through extremely engaging programmes on Channel 4, about Empire, America and War. His ideas and theories challenge traditional views, and this is something the historian should always be looking to do. His interpretations of the past connect and enlighten our immediate future. Often his focus will be economic but he rarely alienates with too many figures. He simply selects the right ones to back the thrust of his story. For me he achieves all the things an historian ought to. This doesn’t mean his conclusions have to be full-proof. Indeed it’s because he recognises History is not straightforward and that it’s constantly evolving and full of contradictions, that I admire him.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/feb/20/niall-ferguson-interview-civilization

In yesterday’s Observer Ferguson gives an insightful interview. The writer, William Skidelsky, does a superb job of marrying the probing of Ferguson’s personal journey with his world view. There is some interesting background to Ferguson’s works, which shed light on them. Overall it’s a fantastic article about the man as well as the ideas. He is truly a remarkable human being and looking suave at 46 I would go as far as to pop him in my exclusive idol drawer.

His latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, is closely linked to an idea Ferguson has been espousing about History teaching in schools. The curriculum, most accept, is too narrow and sporadic. Students leave having studied Hitler countless times but with no clue of History’s broader sweep and its overarching connections. It’s something that puts the comprehensive school pupils at a disadvantage against more traditionally educated, public school types. I can personally vouch for this and as a keen History student would welcome the subject being both better taught and more attractive for future generations.

Ferguson’s new work is targeted at 17 year olds, he says, and it charts the ascendancy of the West over the East since Early Modern times. Ferguson’s recent back catalogue of works have focused on Empire and his views, particularly on the British and American systems, have been controversial. His fusion of idealism and realism is tremendously inspiring. What I tried to express earlier is brilliantly summed up in the conclusions to his work: for example, the British Empire did bad but also a great deal of good or Americanisation can be a force for immorality but also if applied more earnestly and thoughtfully, bring immense prosperity and freedom. I am generalising and simplifying, but as I said he is the best of historians; accessible but scholarly supreme, dynamic and revisionist but pragmatic.

I look forward to his latest work, both in TV and book form and wish him the best of luck with his crusade to evolve the teaching of his subject; just as history itself and his views have done.

Ed’s safe shadow cabinet of unity must not lose the fire of Opposition


Two Eds are better than one? Well perhaps not as Labour’s new leader opted not to make his namesake Ed Balls shadow chancellor, despite the weight of expertise, a strong leadership campaign and many votes in the shadow cabinet elections behind him. His wife Yvette Cooper then, who topped the poll of Labour MPs, would surely get the chance to carve Labour a new, distinctive position on the deficit in response to the Con-Dem’s cuts? No. 60 year old Alan Johnson, the earliest backer of Ed’s elder brother, was chosen by young Ed as his right hand man. Despite David’s choice to bow out from frontline politics, his shadows hangs heavy over his brother’s first team selection.

Of all the shadow cabinet roles assigned it was obviously that of shadow chancellor that carried the most importance and also Johnson’s appointment to that role which was the biggest shock. Ed Miliband has been either slammed for his caution or praised for his unifying skills and his courage to make the right choices regardless of popularity. I happen to think that making Johnson shadow chancellor is a missed opportunity for Labour’s new generation but there are some well selected roles in Ed’s team. Andy Burnham is a good match for the education brief, given his reasonably strong leadership campaign, working class background and accessible, relevant character traits such as his love of football. His ordinary accent will contrast well with Michael Gove’s nasal snobbery in the Commons. Likewise Jim Murphy seems a good choice to shadow the MOD and Liam Fox, with his dour Scots accent he shall be able to pour scorn on government defence cuts whilst emphasising the needs of the ordinary soldier and citizen. There is also no reason why Harriet Harman, Douglas Alexander and John Denham ought not to succeed in their new roles in International Development, Work and Pensions and Business respectively. Alexander and Denham in particular have their work cut out, with capable coalition opponents in Ian Duncan Smith and Vince Cable, but both are able ministers themselves.

However in my view Miliband has made a mistake in his handling of where exactly to place the popular and talented husband and wife team of Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper. Both are wasted at the Home and Foreign office. Those who support the leader’s decision say that it was unavoidable to maintain party unity and to avoid the mistakes of the Blair-Brown years. An economic policy handed to Balls, they say, would have conceded this ground to him permanently as Blair did for Brown, dividing the party again and sowing the seeds of future turmoil. My response to the argument of unity is that by appointing Balls Shadow Home Secretary Miliband has not necessarily pacified him. Balls will be gutted as it is to have missed out on his shot at the Treasury yet again; he made no secret of his desire for the job. To be so bluntly snubbed and given what many regard as the jinxed ministerial brief will not endear him to the younger Miliband. Besides there was no reason for Balls and Miliband to be enemies as Blair and Brown were, especially if Miliband had trusted Balls and rewarded with a job he had long coveted. If Miliband was uncomfortable handing his most important role to the volatile Balls though, he should have given it to his wife Cooper. Cooper won the shadow cabinet elections, and therefore had democratic legitimacy as well as the additional merits of youth (only 40 years old and part of the new generation), expertise (she was previously Work and Pensions secretary, a closely related role), intelligence (Harvard educated, a journalist at the Independent) and the fact that she is female. Appointing her to his top job would have sent exactly the right sort of modern, fair message but instead Miliband played it safe. Whilst being Foreign Secretary is an important, prestigious position, shadowing the area is less glamorous and less crucial to the argument defining British politics at the moment; how best to respond to the deficit.

With Johnson’s appointment Miliband signalled that he is planning to stick largely to Alistair Darling’s failed election pledge to halve the deficit in four years. This is disappointing as frankly Labour need a new idea to be championed by their new generation. Ed Miliband needs his equivalent of David Cameron’s “Big Society” and he has an enormous opportunity if he can find his big idea, because voters refuse to buy into the Prime Minister’s. Appointing Johnson though is unlikely to lead to a distinctive, radical or inspiring position on the deficit with credible, imaginative solutions. Yes Johnson is a capable minister, having held high profile jobs as Home Secretary and Health Secretary amongst others, but he has always taken a back seat and kept a low profile. He has shown the capacity to be popular with ordinary voters; with his working class charm often talked about, but lacked the desire or courage to use it. In the past he has passed up opportunities for advancement and you wonder if he is genuinely enthused by the task set him by his new leader and the opportunities to make a real difference to fairness he has, or whether he is merely grimly descending to his task for the sake of previously mentioned, holy party unity.

Forging a successful, coherent and credible economic policy that is also electable is THE challenge facing Labour. The coalition is struggling over issues like universal benefit, tuition fees and the spending reviews. Tension is set to rise, with the NUS leading students to the streets on the 10th November to highlight the backtracking of Lib Dems. The shadow chancellor should be the spearhead of Labour’s new generation, with new ideas gradually forming a fresh vision, one more accessible than Cameron’s “Big Society” and fairer too. He should be prepared to examine ideas like the Robin Hood tax, mansion tax and graduate tax, whilst also backing the more sensible reforms of the coalition, such as a standard benefit payment and lifting the income tax threshold, as long as they are carried out properly. Labour needs to propose ideas for a new sustainable economy that can support essential and modern public services, whilst always striving for growth. It should look at green taxes, green jobs and green industries and offer a new deal with concrete investment. It should be prepared to ring fence areas of spending the Conservatives are set to cripple, whilst being ready to remain credible and a force in the argument by suggesting alternative means of revenue. Labour has to offer the opportunities a modern day, liberal British society craves in a way that can be paid for and delivered on; not the idealistic, vague promises of Cameron’s individualistic rhetoric, which merely serves as a cover for a smaller state, no matter how well intentioned.

Unfortunately I fear that Miliband’s selections for his shadow cabinet and his chancellor in particular, will lead to half baked, over cautious policies that lack the passion for real change. Indeed an incoherent policy on the deficit will lead to policy clashes throughout the party that might give Labour’s new generation an identity crisis. Balls as shadow chancellor would have relished the chance to set out a genuine alternative to the coalition and Miliband would have had to rein him in at times when he was wrong. But ultimately I feel the dynamism glimpsed in the Labour leadership campaign would have been better channelled towards George Osborne than given a bitter, limited home in opposition to Theresa May. Balls is likely to propose tough, populist positions on crime, driven by his resentment at missing out, policies that could undermine his new leader’s courtship of liberal Britain. Cooper too could have been a far more effective weapon against Osborne than Johnson and shall be wasted in her standoff with Hague, on issues like Afghanistan where there is no real disagreement. She also could have been a far better symbol of the new party Miliband is trying to create. Ultimately I can only assume Miliband feared she would be the puppet of her husband and his appointment of an ensemble of women to less important ministerial positions shows that he may not be as pro-women as he likes to make out. His appointment of an unknown to his previous brief as Shadow Energy and Climate Change Secretary also shows a disappointing lack of regard for an issue he led supporters to believe was vital to him, but now may well have proved to be a mere rung on his career ladder. A high profile appointment to this area in his shadow cabinet could have been a signal of intent. Despite my criticisms though it’s possible that the team Ed has chosen, with its mix of his and his brother’s supporters, will offer a unified and passionate opposition. It is wrong to judge before they have set to work, after all the road to the election is a marathon not a sprint, it just might have been possible to set out at a faster pace.

New Balls please…Does Ed’s reinvention answer Labour’s call for a genuine alternative?


Prior to and during this year’s historic General Election my opinion of the then Schools Secretary Ed Balls was pretty low. In countless TV appearances his arrogant, aggressive demeanour failed to endear him to me, the general public or the voters in his constituency, which he nearly lost. One appearance on a Daily Politics education debate stands out in my mind. Balls had a strong argument backed with evidence, but his bullying behaviour of the unlikeable Tory Michael Gove alienated capable Lib Dem David Laws and I suspect the viewers at home. His intense, wide eyed robotic stare gave the impression of an obsessive madman, with whom it was pointless to try and reason. I always felt afraid for the children accosted to play with him for the cameras and prayed they would escape the education minister’s clutches, unscarred by those unblinking, shining orbs. Behind the insane eyes I suspected that Gordon Brown had long ago replaced Balls’ human brain with a Tory termination calculator, more suited to Labour’s attack dog.   

The Conservatives had rightly singled him out as their Michael Portillo of 1997; an unpopular Labour big gun to be toppled to highlight the scale of the reversal, the sheer triumph of Cameron’s new blues. As it happened Balls clung to his seat and not enough red dominoes fell in the wake of the blue tide to give Cameron a majority. The fall of Balls did not materialise as the symbolic story of a Conservative return and was replaced by the drama of coalition negotiations. And with the resignation of his long term mentor Gordon Brown, Balls felt free to step out from his shadow (after a deal with his able, intelligent wife) and run for the party leadership.

Since this decision Balls has quietly transformed himself into the country’s most able Opposition politician. It’s now pretty much the generally accepted consensus that he has run the best campaign of all the Labour leadership contenders, one that focuses on the fatal flaws of the coalition and proposes serious counter policies, as opposed to sifting through the wreckage of New Labour and whining on about the party’s identity. When Brown took over from Blair the expectations were that Balls, Brown’s protégé, would eventually clash with Blair’s heir David Miliband. Due to the fact that Brown had just acquired the top job and Balls was expected to be made Chancellor, and the storm of the financial crisis was yet to break disastrously over Brown’s popularity, Balls was once favourite to become the next leader. If he retains any of the arrogant self confidence that was evident during the election campaign, he will no doubt be finding it hard to take that even the most gushing articles about him do not give him a hope in hell of success. His carefully targeted, policy driven push for the leadership has been undermined by the Miliband family feud and an image of a bullying suck-up that he can’t quite shake off.

Frankly it’s a damn shame Balls didn’t conduct himself with a little less brash brutality and a little more civility in his formative political years. If it were not for the lingering impression of a ruthless career politician, who shamelessly and tribally attached himself to one of New Labour’s rising stars, it would be far more difficult for Balls to be pinned down as a leftist candidate, with no credible chance of success. Of course it might be said that Balls would not have got where he is today by behaving differently, and that a degree of forcefulness is necessary for success in politics but his track record has nevertheless made it difficult for the party or the country to imagine him as leader. It also must be asked whether or not Balls’ transformation is genuine, as he cannot surely have shed all his unattractive qualities overnight, but the facts of his policy decisions seem to mark him out as Labour’s best hope for an alternative vision to the coalition right now.

Rightly Balls places himself in the progressive camp by backing AV and a graduate tax. He disagrees with the coalition’s package for AV, because of its various measures to redraw constituency boundaries but says he would back it in a modified form. He has called for higher taxes on the wealthy and set out a sensible argument for reducing the deficit through fair tax rises like a NI rise, that only hits those in employment, rather than the coalition’s planned VAT increase. He has been the only shadow minister to effectively challenge the new government in his area, successfully landing blows against new Schools Secretary Michael Gove, not just for his building programme cuts but on the wisdom of the free schools project. Crucially as well as setting out his own fresh, progressive policies, Balls has shown the leadership qualities and level-headedness to stick to positions Labour adopted whilst in government he still believes to be right, despite media hype swinging the other way. On the economy Balls insists that new stimulus packages are still needed to ensure jobs, housing and growth and that the pressing need for drastic deficit reduction is an ideological myth created by the Tories. Whilst the truth probably lies between the extremes of the coalition’s cuts and Balls delay and extra spending, it is refreshing to have a Labour leadership candidate point out the lunacy of the culture of fear surrounding the deficit. Balls also has the weight of past policy judgements he called right behind him, such as his opposition to the euro and creation of an independent Bank of England, but his reluctance to draw attention to his aggressive past has meant he cannot point these out in the leadership contest as enthusiastically as he would like. There is an undoubted logic and sense to Balls’ arguments, as economic growth has always been the best way to reduce the deficit through higher tax receipts.

Whilst Balls looks unlikely to become the next leader of the Labour party there are already rumours of a deal between him and David Miliband. Such a deal would probably see Balls finally have the long coveted Treasury in his sights. Before this leadership election I would have been sceptical about Balls as Chancellor and much preferred the steady hand of Alistair Darling in control of the nation’s finances. However Balls has refreshed his image sufficiently, or at least cleverly concealed his flaws, to present himself as a competent and radical member of a new look, progressive Labour front bench that could offer the country a genuine choice and avoid the gloom of prolonged Opposition.