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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Fighting the endarkenment

We are sliding towards a new dark ages.  The end of civilisation is not guaranteed. The Dutch did after all reject the xenophobe Geert Wilders. But its decline should by now be evident to anyone who thinks about these things....

And that, perhaps, is the problem.

Thinking about other people, about civility and the civic is increasingly rare. Even those whose very identities require them to think about other people because they were created with the express purpose of protecting other people (e.g. the Labour party and the Unions) seem to have become so self-obsessed that they ought to wind themselves up now in moral disgrace.

There is no point whingeing about a narcissist in the White House when there are many more closer to home that we cannot or do not see.

I don't blame the disenfranchised in America for voting for Trump or those in the UK for voting for Brexit or those in Scotland who will soon vote for independence at the second attempt. It is a direct result of knowing that nobody really cares for them.

I don't even blame the Brexit Tories or UKIP. They have always been upfront about their greed and self-interest. Those who voted for them must live with the consequences.

At work I have a simple goal that I can easily explain. I am trying to raise the age at which our society gives up on children. I can see the problem. I can articulate the problem and I can try to do something about it.

In life however, I am currently stumped. The problem seems to be so large and complex that it is impossible to define.  And without a problem statement, we can't really get started on the solution.

Three amazing things have happened in my lifetime: Apartheid ended peacefully, the Berlin Wall came down and Northern Ireland found and fought for an enduring peace [NB I consider all to be more amazing as in unlikely and unlooked for than the moon landing or the Higgs Boson both of which were easily predicted]. All these happened because of our ability to think of others. As Lord Eames said,
'There is no difference in a mother's tearsThere can be no hierarchy of grief."

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

I mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore

I spent today visiting primary schools in Birmingham and a conversation with one of the amazing headteachers I am fortunate enough to employ reminded me of a spoof British values piece I had written over two years ago which I dug out to share with her.

Re-reading something I had written before I had begun to entertain the possibility of Brexit or a Trump candidacy, let alone presidency, scared the hell out of me as to how we had managed to slip so far and so fast.

The piece was written in response to a challenge that I should write a statement of British values for the website of the charity that I run and it went like this,

"17th October 2014

The Elliot Foundation is committed to promoting the core values of Britishness which are clearly demonstrated by our current government
  • Arrogance - everything good has happened because we made it happen and everything bad was someone else's fault (either foreigners or Marxists, who are everywhere)
  • Narcissism - we are brilliant and the best and if only everyone else was more like us the world would be a better place
  • Xenophobia - there is no problem big or small that cannot be blamed upon bloody foreigners (see above arrogance)
  • Self interest - we will pontificate about others not following our example whilst shamelessly filling our pockets when we think no one is looking
  • Laziness - never do anything positive or productive when you could spend the time moaning and blaming someone else for the problem"
It doesn't read like a tongue in cheek satire of needless bureaucracy.  It reads like a playbook for global politics over the last two years. On reflection, I think that it is the triumph of individualism.  Margaret Thatcher famously said, "There is no such thing as society, there are individual men and women and there are families".  Well if that's what you think, today's society is what you get.  

If only we could invert the values above as an aspiration for our leaders.  Simply taking the opposites of the words above would be a good start.

Hard work

But aside from Canada, can you think of a single country that is heading in this direction.

In the words of Peter Finch in the Sidney Lumet masterpiece, Network, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

Monday, October 10, 2016

A blog of two halves about grammar schools

The half with the evidence
Over the last month many of my friends and acquaintances have asked me, "Just what is the deal with grammar schools?" The fascinating thing is that it really isn't complicated. There is loads of evidence. And it basically comes down to three key points.

The first, most people already know, is that disadvantaged children in areas with grammar schools do worse than their counterparts in areas that don't select at eleven.

The second, some people know, is that when comparing other education systems around the world the ones that do best don't select.

And finally the bit that not so many people know is that those lucky enough to pass the eleven plus and go to grammar school do no better than their counterparts in areas without selection. The educational advantage is secured before they even start.

To summarise the best education systems in the world don't do selection by ability. Where selection happens the disadvantaged do worse and the lucky do no better.

So why the hell does the idea persist?

The half with the opinion
My first hypothesis is a cognitive bias called the endowment effect which basically states that humans tend to value things they have bought or selected. We like to think that we are clever and make wise choices.

People who went to grammar school tend to be positive about the experience. It made them feel special and valued. It gave them a leg up...

Well it didn't actually give them a leg up as we have seen above. Others less fortunate were hobbled and held back but the end result was the same. Those that went to grammars tended to get better jobs.

So they viewed grammars as good things. They feel preferable to private schools where any idiot can buy a better future if their parents have money. Those who went to grammar school did so as a result of their own merit and hard work. It plays nicely to those with an ethic to get on and better themselves.

But effectively the selection at 11 massively favours those with money and the ability to tutor their children through the exam so it is the perfect tool of an oligarchy.

You concentrate power in the hands of a select few but give the impression that you believe in a meritocracy. So your hold on power is never challenged. It is the educational equivalent of the 'Hunger Games' or a lottery. Although a lottery would actually be a fairer model of allocating places.

But why this government's interest?

My second hypothesis is that they want to distinguish themselves from the absurdly overpriveleged rule of Cameron and the Etonians.

Thirdly and perhaps more sinisterly is that it is a policy that sounds good but which can't be measured for a really long time. It would take a minimum of ten years and possibly more to actually be able to measure whether grammar schools had improved outcomes for all. All of which time you can report to the electorate that you are making progress towards an entirely invented number of new grammars (say 500) without actually being held to account for it being a stupid idea in the first place.

It's almost perfect politics. Something you can say with conviction and passion is the thing you are doing to improve education for everyone but which no one can challenge with inconvenient facts or reality.

Other than all that data that we already have.

And you thought that Donald Trump was post-factual.

Note: let me be absolutely clear that I don't have anything against grammar schools. I have a problem with the idea that only 1 in 5 children or thereabouts get the chance to go to one and that this selection is made at the age of eleven. If the challenge was to make all schools make children feel as special and successful as those that went to grammar schools then I would be all over it.

More evidence:
Full fact's summary
Huffington post's summary which leaves the door open if the admission criteria are changed
The RSA's letter to the debate

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Neo liberalism and education - where have we seen this before?

I drafted this piece back in May but didn't post it because it was born of frustration and could be perceived as negative.  But looking at it now, I don't think there is anything overtly critical in it.  It is clearly ironic and with a bit of distance I think it shows how policy builds on policy.

Often the problem that you seek to solve requires you to start from somewhere other than where you are now...

Second verse, same as the first, a little bit louder and a little bit worse...

Oh goody. Grammar schools are back on the agenda.  That will help social cohesion and social mobility...

I was going to blog about it but when looking for evidence to support both sides of the argument I found this piece from Full Fact, which puts it much better than I could.

And, as I have said before, the difference in life chances is established before children leave primary school. So, if the government genuinely wants to improve social mobility it should look at improving primary funding. Not coming up with new whizzy schemes... particularly if the 'new whizzy schemes' are just repackaged failures from the past viewed the the rosy lenses of those lucky enough to be selected.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The straw man to end all straw men

I am dismayed by the English & Welsh vote to leave the EU. I am not surprised by the English vote, indeed I have been worrying about it for the last six months.  The Welsh I had thought would see which side their bread was buttered on... But alas no.

I will be angry for some time as this is electoral self-harm on an epic scale.  

But I am just as angry at the reaction of the remain lobby who jump to label all those who voted to leave as fascists and racists.  This is as stupid as that which they accuse of their opponents. 

I can completely understand why people voted at they did:

And it starts with this marvellous maths meme on the Iceland football team who recently beat the English (which is very funny)

I keep asking myself how on earth did 17.4 million people vote to leave the European Union. And of course the answer is that they didn't.  

Utterly invented but indicative tally of people who voted leave:

And before anyone gets upset the same thing applies to those who voted remain (ie there were lots of different reasons that added up to slightly fewer than the above).

The point is that plebiscites are the tools of politicians who don't actually care what the people think but just want to manipulate them (this is probably still part of the GCSE History curriculum).  They are the tools of demagogues and dictators.

David Cameron didn't have the courage or the decency to put remaining in the EU in the Conservative manifesto.  He thought he could split the vote and win or narrowly win the election and then either avoid altogether or manage the electorate through a referendum. But people don't like being managed or patronised or talked down to.  

Jeremy Corbyn is almost as responsible for his abjectly wet attempt to support remain. But so is Nick Clegg for destroying the Liberal voice in the UK. So is Tony Blair for not introducing Proportional Representation and making people in non-marginal communities actually think that their vote mattered (oh and for invading Iraq). Likewise the entire union movement for giving us Ed Millband and then Jeremy Corbyn.  Likewise Margaret Thatcher for undermining society as a whole. And so on through Callaghan, Wilson, Heath etc. Likewise the fourth estate for the most pathetic failure to hold both sides of the campaign to account for their shocking lies and exaggerations.

This is not a triumph of democracy. It is an abject failure.

We might as well have a revolution...

Monday, June 13, 2016

Well he would say that wouldn't he...

This will be my last post on the EU referendum.

It is probably the most important choice put to the UK electorate in the almost 50 years I have been a British Citizen.  But regardless of how passionate and scared I am about the outcome on June 24th, I know you can go too far in trying to convince people and end up simply alienating them; as Eddie Izzard did on question time last week...

[when you are sitting next to Nigel Farage in a debate and Nigel starts to look measured you must know you are doing something wrong]

My parting shots to the debate all come from conversations I have had over the weekend and sit under three broad headings.

Question people's motives
I spoke to someone on Friday night who told me that his mind had largely been made up following a conversation with an affable city trader (a decent sort of bloke) who had reassured him that the UK economy would be fine following Brexit.  The city would go on making money and based on this he favoured Brexit.

I got the distinct impression that this was a remain own goal.  If the campaign hadn't been so relentlessly negative about the UK spinning into an economic black hole of its own making (which of course it won't) then he might have opted for the status quo.

I think this highlights the importance of motives.  I am sure that the city trader my friend spoke to came across as friendly, credible and reasonable.  But he had a significant vested interest in my friend believing him.

[incidentally if you want to know about where we should be directing our anger, rather than against immigrants and foreigners, you might be interested to know that banks and hedge funds have commissioned exit polls so they can make a profit from the referendum because the broadcasters are not doing any]

So, whichever way you lean or vote please ask yourself what does this person stand to gain by my believing what he has to say?*

Look behind the first line of argument
The second conversation was with my plumber.  Who, incidentally, is about as wonderful a plumber as you could wish for. He is British, although his girlfriend is Polish and his concerns are all about the unelected eurocrats who tell us what to do.

Sovereignty has been put front and centre by the Brexit campaign.  They argue that British people should make decisions about British laws, which of course sounds like a good thing. Although the argument does hide the, 'nasty foreigners who can't be trusted idea' inside itself.  I would suggest that it is not about reclaiming sovereignty, it is about concentrating it in someone else's hands.

Brexit are not arguing to reclaim the power over your life from Johnny Foreigner to give it back to you.  They want the power for themselves.  And having left the EU, there will be significantly less counterbalancing power.  They argue that if we can take back power from the EU at least you will be able to kick them out at the next election if you don't like what they are doing.  But they make this argument knowing that we don't actually live in a democracy. The power to influence a British general election is concentrated in the hands of a terrifyingly small group of people and that group includes Rupert Murdoch.

I would never claim that the EU is a beacon of democracy, it isn't.  It's what you get when you build compromise on top of compromise.  But I would argue that the EU is significantly less vulnerable to minority control than a Brexited UK.

The concept of Boris Johnson claiming to be 'for the people against the elite' ought to make your brain leap outside of your head at its sheer nonsense.  Yet we let him get away with it only because the Prime Minister is even more privileged and lacks Boris's self-deprecating charm.

Above all do no harm
The third conversation was the only argument that I had some sympathy with.  Over a delightful game of mini-golf with my wife and daughter, my wife's oldest friend explained to me that he was backing Brexit because it might be the first step towards bloody revolution.

He argued that the current state of the nation is so terrible we must do something.  The rich are getting richer. The poor are getting poorer. What little social cohesion remains is evaporating faster than the ice-caps.  Why not blow the whole thing up and start again? It's not as if it could get any worse.

Could it?

Well, yes it could. Because if we vote to leave, we will effectively be voting to transfer power from one group of elitist, greedy, selfish %$#@ers, without moral compass, who have no understanding of or interest in what life is like for normal people...

To another group of even more elitist, even more greedy, even more selfish but also racist @#$%ers who are simply pretending to care about you because they want your vote.

You don't believe that Donald Trump actually cares about anyone other than himself.  Why would you believe them?

Take a tip from doctors.  If you are unsure what is going on,  first be sure to do no harm. Please vote to remain.

I'll give you a hug if you do.

* Personal disclosure so you can question my motives.  I don't think that my family will benefit financially one way or another.  My elderly mother's house in France may actually go up in value if Sterling collapses but the value of our house may also go down. I have no shares. My pension will probably be unaffected either way in that I will never be able to afford to retire.