Friday, August 31, 2012

Convention Time - With Some Hollywood Weirdness

I have posted a piece about the Republican convention, with links to good online comments, at the Tutor2u website.  Clint Eastwood's bizarre speech has taken quite a few headlines and it really is a pity that such an iconic figure has so misjudged an occasion that he has briefly become a figure of ridicule.  The best thing Eastwood could have done would have been to arrive on stage, wave to the delirious audience, deliver perhaps a couple of slightly re-jigged movie lines, and retreat to the VIP stand.  The man who derived his movie cult from delivering only the most limited of words when on screen has shown us exactly why that was such a good move all those years ago.

Meanwhile, vice-presidential  nominee Paul Ryan's speech was well received by his audience as expected, but critics pointed out numerous distortions within it - a sign of things to come, as Ryan's legislative record becomes subject to close scrutiny.  As for the nominee himself, the best thing to be said for Mitt Romney is that he has emerged largely intact.  He has not been notably enhanced by the convention, but he has made a steady fist of it which - given some of his earlier gaffes - is no mean feat.  Whether he really does have what it takes to deliver the presidency to the Republicans is what the next three months are, of course, all about.  In the meantime, Obama is about to remind us of his star power when he speaks to a football stadium full of supporters.  It's unlikely he will need the services of a movie star to help him.


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Romney's VP Pick

Congressman Paul Ryan is Mitt Romney's pick as Vice-President candidate, doubtless in an attempt to reassure his right-wing base.  British commentator Dan Hannan thinks Ryan will be key in helping Romney win the White House, but the reality is that VP choices don't make presidential campaigns, even if they do sometimes break them.  Just ask John McCain.

Janet Daley's Bilge

If the Daily Telegraph is actually paying Janet Daley for her ridiculous columns, we should make sure we never take heed of that paper's regular injunctions to government about wasting money.  They are past masters at it themselves every time they publish one of Ms. Daley's columns.

She is on fine, caricaturist form today with a lot of bilge about the terribly uncompetitive, mediocre  nature of modern Britain.  Apparently, the British Olympic success has actually occurred in the midst of an irremediable downturn in British civic ethics.  It has been a "celebration of all those aspects of the human condition which the political fashion and educational ideology of the past 40 years has attempted to denigrate."  Er, right.  So despite the insidious efforts of a large portion of what commentators like Ms. Daley often refer to as the 'British Establishment', we've still managed to produce an unprecedented number of medal winners.  They're not very successful, those political fashionistas and education ideologists are they?  Fascinated by this vivid insight into the corrupt culture of Britain, I read eagerly on looking for the rigorous evidence that Ms. Daley had unearthed.

Well, there's been a "collapse of standards in state education", although no further support for that statement was offered; certainly not the rising grade levels.  There is apparently evidence of "the teachers’ refusal to supervise out-of-hours activities", although the specifics were left unsaid.  "The teachers' " does rather seem to imply a wholesale refusal of any state school teacher to supervise any out of school activity, which will come as a nasty shock to those who thought that running sports teams, D of E, CCF, after school classes etc were precisely that.  It also makes the NASUWT's current work to rule order a little bit pointless, if that's what teachers are already doing in their normal working lives. 

Then Ms. Daley dismisses the idea that the "availability of sports facilities" might be a key factor in preventing state school students' access to sports, concentrating instead on "the transcendent question of what constitutes social virtue."  This introduces the following, glorious paragraph:

"The prevailing, quite explicit, theme disseminated by political and educational ideologues for more than a generation has been that no one should be encouraged to perform markedly better (or be rewarded for achieving more) than anyone else: that being an exceptional talent or a successful competitor was inherently unfair to those without the same advantages even if the “advantages” were your own character and motivation."

No-one should be encouraged to perform better?  No-one should become an exceptional talent?  Competition is unfair?  Oh dear.  In one fell swoop the efforts of teachers up and down the country to push their students to get the best grades possible in exams, to gain entry into competitive universities, or even just to take part in an out of school activity which can showcase their winning talents, has been dismissed by the expert commentary of Janet Daley.  Not competitive?  There is virtually nothing about the modern school environment that isn't competitive.  Of course, so self-evident does Ms. Daley believe her case to be that she has forgotten the need to provide at least a semblance of evidence to back it up.  In amongst the self-righteous verbiage of her nonsensical column you will search in vain to find a shred of supporting detail.  Such things are beneath the requirements of an acknowledged education expert such as Janet Daley.

So thoroughly acquainted with the nation's primary schools is our columnist that she is able to tell us, rather sweepingly, that "the prohibition on competition, or clear acknowledgement of superior ability, in primary school classrooms has been a horrendous handicap to the academic performance of boys for whom winning – coming “top of the class” as it was once known – is a major motivation."  How on earth did Mo Farah or the British men's gymnastic team ever manage to combat the iniquitous influence of their state schools to become icons of competitiveness, perseverance and triumph?  And how on earth have all these state school educated boys been able to get their top rank exam grades to head into the British university system?

Utter bilge, really.  How Daley gets away with writing this nonsense is a mystery to anyone brought up on the notion of evidence based arguments.  Perhaps the Telegraph is so lacking in discernment that it now allows her to submit columns which she wrote in her sleep.  The sad thing is that there is a large segment of right-wing opinion, apparently including the Prime Minister, which really does believe, on the thinnest of evidence, that state schools are involved in a massive conspiracy to defraud the nation of its sense of competitive spirit.

Ms. Daley blithely ignores the fact that provision of decent facilities is more than just a passing contributor to sporting success, or that good and well paid working conditions allow private schools to invest in specialist sports instructors, or even that the most debilitating factor working against the  promotion of exciting, competitive ventures in schools are the government's own raft of bureaucratic obstacles, including the ever expanding risk assessment requirements.

There is one little piece of evidence in Ms. Daley's detail free column, and that is the reference to Sheffield City Council's rapid removal of the vandalism done to the gold post box commemorating Jess Ennis' heptathlon win.  Sheffield is, of course, a Labour council.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Cameron and The School Sports Debate

It’s great that David Cameron has been prominent in attending the London Olympics, and even better that he has been sufficiently enthused by the tremendous success of British competitors to make a call for greater sports emphasis in schools.  But is Mr. Cameron na├»ve in passing the blame for a ‘lack of competitive ethos’ on to teachers?  Or is he simply the latest in a line of Prime Ministers from Margaret Thatcher on to pay lip service to the idea of sports in state schools whilst simultaneously cutting the funding that makes it possible.

The problem, as ever, lies with both government and school leaders.  Since the education revolution of the 1980s, government has been immensely successful in focussing attention on academic results.  The annual publication of exam league tables has forced schools into an ever more intense cycle of relentless grade chasing.  Good, you might think, for the academic side of education.  Not so good for all the other aspects of school life.  School leaders have certainly got to grips with the idea that they need to show, year on year, consistent exam success for their students.  Sadly too many of them have taken a rather one-paced, narrow perspective of this, making exams their focus at the expense of other, broader aspects of a decent liberal education.  The most significant casualty of this has probably been school sports, with trips and visits not far behind. 

It isn’t directly the government’s fault that too many school senior management teams increasingly hide behind a ‘cover my ass’ culture of ever more detailed, time consuming and off-putting bureaucracy.  Too few heads and deputies are willing to support their staff in running after school sports, or arranging fixtures, putting lengthy forms in the way of keen teachers and taking weeks to pass even the simplest request to run an extra-curricular activity.  One friend of mine, newly qualified and teaching in a state school, commented in despair at the fact that she had to fill in a lengthy risk assessment in order to take her PE class into the park for a class session.  The park was opposite the school.  Her risk-averse head took two weeks before he decided he could agree with her several page risk assessment, and demanded parental consents and health forms from every parent before the lesson could be conducted.  Lesser teachers would have given up long before.  Plenty of heads, too, insist that their sports staff attend tedious after-school inset sessions over running school sports fixtures.  It is little wonder that teachers who might once have been enthusiastic over the idea of running extra-curricular sports give up in the face of the mountains of cowardly, pass the blame bureaucracy put in their paths by senior staff.  (I should incidentally declare an interest.  I am a rarity amongst teachers, working as I do for a head who positively encourages extra-curricular activities and ensures a can-do atmosphere in his school, happily taking the ultimate responsibility on himself and giving his staff a high degree of leeway to run things.  Why?  Quite simply he trusts their professionalism, and he understands that responsible leadership involves supporting rather than hindering them).

But behind this school problem is a government problem, and whatever he says now, Mr. Cameron cannot honestly claim to have supported the revitalised sports culture he now wants to see in state schools.  His education secretary cut the funding to the School Sports Partnership and devised a sixth form funding formula for state schools that removed financing for extra-curricular sports in sixth forms.  Only academic A-levels are deemed worthy of government funding in the state sector.  As a way of hindering sport in schools, that was pretty good going.  And, of course, if you are going to inculcate a blame culture for poor exam results, you can hardly act surprised if your head teachers choose to ignore the poor relation – sports.

The independent sector has a distinguished sporting record because independent schools invest considerable sums in supporting their sports provision.  They pay for professional coaches, offer considerable scholarships for students with strong sporting ability and invest in state of the art sports facilities.  None of that is available for state schools and no, sports professionals who can command considerable salaries are not likely to respond to a Big Society call to work free of charge in schools.  

If Mr. Cameron’s commitment to long-term sports provision for the majority of British students is more than simply the passing enthusiasm of an Olympics fan, then he needs to encourage an ethos of support, accompanied by appropriate funding, in the Department for Education first and foremost.  Otherwise, he might be best advised to avoid the debate altogether.