Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Pickles Bubble

Eric Pickles walks through the corridors of Westminster with "the stately waddle of an out of condition sumo wrestler". So writes Conservative Home's Paul Goodman in the Daily Telegraph today, but despite that glorious description, Goodman's piece is actually a paean of praise to the blunt speaking Communities Secretary. Goodman claims he has delivered more obvious change than other, more 'star quality' members of the Coalition. Actually, though, Goodman is making a rather different point. This former Tory MP, who started out as a student 'wet' only to re-emerge in Westminster as a firm rightist, is really using his article about Pickles to launch a few sidewinders at the Cameron Coalition.

In commenting that Pickles is not one of the wine bar drinking inner circle, Goodman is having a go at the perceived elitism, or cliquiness, of the Cameron team. In praising Pickles for ditching a whole raft of Communities legislation, and slashing departmental expenditure, Goodman is attacking the Cameron government for its slowness in pursuing proper Conservative reform. Goodman is a thoughtful man, and an unadulterated rightist, and he has no great love for the Coalition, along with pretty well every other writer and editor on Con Home. For Eric Pickles to become his pin-up man, things must be bad!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Education and the Defence of Elitism

Tony Judt, who died on August 6th., was a historian in his prime, having published his magnum opus "Post-War: A History of Europe Since 1945" in 2005, and being at the top of his form as a historical polemicist, particularly in his criticisms of Israel and her policies. "Post-War" takes time, but is well worth the effort for any aspiring historian, or indeed anyone who simply wants to understand the latter half of the twentieth century.

Meanwhile Judt, never one to accept conventional orthodoxies, also provided an excoriating criticism of England's comprehensive school system, and a vigorous defence of the educational elitism of the grammar schools. In an essay in the New York Review of Books, he commented:

For forty years, British education has been subjected to a catastrophic sequence of “reforms” aimed at curbing its elitist inheritance and institutionalizing “equality.” The havoc wrought in higher education was well summarized by Anthony Grafton in this magazine, but the worst damage has been at the secondary level. Intent upon destroying the selective state schools that afforded my generation a first-rate education at public expense, politicians have foisted upon the state sector a system of enforced downward uniformity.

The result, predicted from the outset, was that the selective private schools (“public schools”) have flourished. Desperate parents pay substantial fees to exempt their children from dysfunctional state schools; universities are under inordinate pressure to admit underqualified candidates from the latter and have lowered their admissions standards accordingly; each new government has instituted reforms aimed at compensating for the failed “initiatives” of their predecessors.

He concluded:

Universities are elitist: they are about selecting the most able cohort of a generation and educating them to their ability—breaking open the elite and making it consistently anew. Equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are not the same thing. A society divided by wealth and inheritance cannot redress this injustice by camouflaging it in educational institutions—by denying distinctions of ability or by restricting selective opportunity—while favoring a steadily widening income gap in the name of the free market. This is mere cant and hypocrisy.

Monday, August 09, 2010

True Adventure

Naomi Campbell's testimony at the Hague's trial of Charles Taylor over her possible receipt of blood diamonds may not be very uplifting, but while she may be adding to the news media's summer season of misery (floods in Pakistan, fires in Moscow) there is one story of heroic adventure that brings a sense of awe and fascination. That is former army captain Ed Stafford's epic Amazon trek, a two and half year, 4,000 mile hike along the whole of the Amazon, encountering hostile people and lethal insect and wildlife. And a few rather difficult tracks. I've just come back from a bit of mountain walking in Slovenia that included the odd hail storm or two, but really, I might as well have just strolled through the local park!

If you want to follow the full story of Stafford's extraordinary adventure then his blog is here.