Thursday, January 30, 2014

Education and the Private School Problem

It looks like the New Statesman carries an interesting and thought-provoking article this week, by George and David Kynaston.  George is another SGS alumnus and former Teach First teacher, while his father David is the widely regarded and very readable historian of modern Britain.  They've turned their sights on the issue of private school dominance in modern British society, adding to the wider debate about education and social mobility.

I haven't read the article yet - it arrives in the school library tomorrow - but NS editor Jason Cowley (a recent visitor to SGS himself) blogs his thoughts about it here, and George Kynaston was on this morning's "Today" programme (2 hrs 54 in) discussing it with Fiona Millar, the education campaigner.

Plenty of words have been exhausted on the issue of how education might best promote social mobility and of course there is no easy, ready-packed answer.  The Kynastons accuse the left of ignoring the issue of the private sector for too long.  They might equally - although I suspect they have not - accuse the left of having abandoned, for misplaced ideological reasons, one of the key engines of social mobility in the past, the grammar schools.  It has not always been so of course.

As I've blogged before, the problem of the mixed education system which ousted grammars was well identified by a prominent academic in an article in the New York Review of Books in 2010, entitled simply “Meritocrats”.  He furiously denounced what had been happening to secondary education when he wrote:

For forty years, British education has been subjected to a catastrophic sequence of “reforms” aimed at curbing its elitist inheritance and institutionalizing “equality.”…. 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.

He was not the first critic.  In the Black Papers of 1975, one author argued that:

Selection must and will take place in education and those who banish rational methods of selection are simply favouring irrational and accidental ones.  The children who will be lost forever are the poor clever children with an illiterate background….Why should socialist policy, of all things, be so grossly unjust to the under-privileged clever child, avid to learn, able to learn, and under non-selective education likely to pass in relaxed idle boredom those precious years when strenuous learning is a joy and the whole intellectual and moral future of the human being is at stake?

These were strong words, and the interesting thing in both cases is that they came from the pens of bona fide left-wing thinkers.  Tony Judt and Iris Murdoch respectively.  Would that the left came up with such fearless thinking on education again.

Road-Blocked Obama?

President Obama's State of the Union speech was not expansive in its promises, and uplifting only in the form of a few rhetorical cadences rather than specific policy proposals.  In fact, of course, this is about as realistic as he can get, as a second term president facing a hostile House of Representatives and operating in one of the most poisoned and divided political milieu in Washington since the days pre-dating the Civil War. 

The Economist magazine carries a fair-minded assessment of his speech, and a couple of things stand out.  One is that despite his seemingly robust commitment to work around Congress, using Executive Orders if necessary, Mr. Obama has shown in practice a far greater respect for the limits of executive power than his predecessors, signing fewer executive orders in his first term than any president since the second world war.

The second point comes at the end of the article, where the Economist take a quick look back at Mr. Obama's two predecessors in their equivalent State of the Union speeches:

At the equivalent point in his presidency, Bill Clinton was musing on how to spend a huge surplus. A few years later that question was irrelevant. In his fifth state-of-the-union George W. Bush praised the strength of the economy; within three years he was dealing with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. 

Perhaps a less grandiose speech, recognising the limitations of his position and the road-blocks ahead, might just presage a more quietly successful final term than his predecessors enjoyed, for all their grand-standing.

Hillary Clinton's Dominance

Barack Obama may still have three years to run, and came out fighting in a State of the Union address which signified his desire not to spend the remainder of his presidency as a do-nothing lame duck, but it is in the nature of the game that second term presidencies see a lot of attention focusing on what comes next.  And here, the Democrats have always only had one name in the field - former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The Washington Post records the biggest primary poll lead ever for the undeclared Clinton.  She leads her next putative runner, Vice-President Joe Biden, by an astonishing 61 points.  No-one has scored that highly before.  And Clinton's not just the biggest beast by far in the Democratic firmament, her name recognition dominates what is at the moment a puny set of Republican possibilities.  Bear in mind that the once mighty New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had a disastrous January, with the George Washington Bridge scandal still likely to come back and bite him, especially if his sacked aide decides silence is not the best policy.

Of the other Republicans with decent poll ratings, Paul Ryan was hardly a brilliant performer as Mitt Romney's vice-presidential running mate, while Jeb Bush - the former president's younger brother - could certainly have traction but may find the Bush name more of a hindrance than a help in going for the Republican nomination.

Of course, we are only at the beginning of 2014, and the next presidential is due in November 2016.  Hillary knows better than any just how a seemingly invulnerable lead can be dismantled - as her own pre-2008 primary lead was by one Barack Obama.  She is also far from declaring; the third placed Democrat name in the primary polls, Elizabeth Warren (on 8%), is one of several women senators who signed a letter urging her to run, and yet even with all of the pressure and seeming inevitability to a Clinton candidacy we know that she is a woman who pulls surprises out of the bag.  The biggest one yet would be an announcement that she WON'T be running.

It's possible that Clinton herself doesn't yet know. Her time away from the political front line could have rejuvenated her or it could have persuaded her that she doesn't want to leap back into the piranha pool.  And yet.......  Clinton is such a well known figure, and has already battled such strenuous attacks since the time she was First Lady, that there are unlikely to be any more surprises waiting to ambush her candidacy - she is the best known quantity in American politics.  She also once talked of breaking the glass ceiling of a woman president - what are the chances of her not wanting to be the person who finally does that?

Until she declares one way or the other - quite possibly well over a year down the line - Hillary Clinton can at least bask in the knowledge that hers is the biggest non-presidential show in town, and likely to remain so for a good while yet.  She's never had it so good.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Jeremy Paxman's War

It’s only January and I must confess that war memorial weariness is already in danger of overtaking me, so heaven knows what I’ll be like come August.  Nevertheless, I did have some positive anticipation for Jeremy Paxman’s new series on the outbreak of the war, telling it from the British perspective, and I wasn’t disappointed.  In an age where many television documentary presenters are often a little anaemic and underwhelming on the small screen, Paxman somehow bursts through the medium with which he is so familiar, bringing his melancholy mien and authoritative tones to burnish his own telling of the story with some elan. 

Paxman’s documentary was imbued with a strong narrative drive, and the rather worn outlines of this history were somehow brought clearly into focus once again.  Amongst the more familiar aspects, Paxman gave us less well known stories too – the visit by Foreign Secretary Edward Grey, the bird-watcher of Fallodon, to the bird house at London Zoo two days before war was declared; the tears of Britain’s leaders; the early exploits of Boy Scouts on the south coast, given days off school after a night of watching for Germans; the tale of the first German spy, Karl Lody *; and the abominably self-serving, yet hugely successful, travelling recruitment show of Horatio Bottomley.  These were interspersed with some often excellently researched original footage and a carefully assembled picture of a Britain going to war which also challenged some received notions.  Foremost among these, perhaps, was the effort made by Paxman and his producers to show us that the war was not simply welcomed by a jingoistic public.  Its reception was far more nuanced, and the expectation of war was a bitter one for many even before it began.

Of course there are quibbles with the programme, not least the odd determination of producers and editors to intersperse archive footage and Paxman’s presentation with jarring modern images of express trains and 21st century city life.  I know it’s difficult to find a continuous stream of archive film, but the modern shots seem lazy and irrelevant.  But this is a small quibble in a programme that also gave us an interview with a 105 year old lady who remembered the bombing of Hartlepool, and the newly double barrelled Julian Kitchener-Fellowes on his distinguished ancestor, Lord Kitchener.

Jeremy Paxman has managed to set a high standard in this, 2014’s first substantive documentary on the outbreak of the modern world’s watershed conflict, although even as he described the reactions of the politicians to the oncoming storm in that distant summer, I couldn’t help find myself wondering how the Great Inquisitor might have interviewed them about their terrors and decisions.  With a little mercy, I hope.

* A brief history of the German spy Karl Lody is here at Rupert Colley's "History in an Hour' website.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Does Anyone in Education Like Gove?

The Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, is in full-on attack mode today.  And surprisingly, given his history, his targets are not teachers, or "middle-class grammar schools".  His target is the man thought to be one of his closest allies, Education Secretary Michael Gove.  In a further twist to the Gove dilemma, his shadow Tristram Hunt reckons that one of his own ministers - Liz Truss - is opposed to his distinctly one-sided approach to the teaching of World War One.  Which begs the question of just who in the world of education really does like the Education Secretary?

Ofsted first.  Whatever he says today, Michael Wilshaw is certainly an ideological ally of Mr. Gove's when it comes to reforming (or "attacking", depending on your view) teaching in the classroom.  It speaks volumes about Gove's political management that he has managed to alienate the Ofsted chief, who was said to be "spitting blood" (OK, we get it, he's angry) about what he sees as attempts to undermine his organisation.  We've been here before in Goveland.  What Sir Michael is concerned about is the sniping against Ofsted from political allies of Mr. Gove.  It wasn't that long ago that Gove's special advisers were accused of running a twitter account set up for the purpose of attacking critics of their boss's vision of a brave old educational world, so there is certainly form from an Education Secretary who enjoys nothing more than mixing it up with educationalists and getting political hatchet men to do some of the dirty work for him.  In fact, there are serious questions to be raised about the way in which Ofsted goes about its business, and that becomes even more important when you have a chief as combative as Sir Michael.  There has been, for some time, a belief that the political message which Sir Michael, up to now, has been keen to endorse has not always been supported by his inspectors on the ground, leading to clear confusion in schools as to what, exactly, is expected of them.  A conservative view of the Ofsted problem was made by the pseudonymous practising teacher Stephen Edwards on the Conservative Home site earlier this month.

Meanwhile, Gove's ludicrous caricature about the teaching of World War 1 history may also have engendered the frustration of one of his departmental colleagues, Elisabeth Truss.  Tristram Hunt is making hay with this one, as reported by the Observer today, but we have - once again - been here before.  When Gove originally attacked poor teaching methods he mis-used an example lesson from a practioner's website popular with teachers, and larded his attack with ill-researched generalisations.

For an intelligent man, Michael Gove clearly struggles with the detail of his brief, something which was apparent from the very start of his tenure.  Perhaps it's not that surprising after all that even people closely allied with him, and working alongside, tend to get frustrated.

Corruption and Death in Africa, Repression in China

A new country in Africa and a new leader in Beijing both, in their own ways, represented a small sense of hope and change last year.  Not any more.

The new country, South Sudan, has rapidly descended into the almost textbook condition of new African countries of inter-tribal violence and the financial corruption of its 'big men' leaders.  The signs were there long before its independence, and the reluctant conclusion of Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society, in his article for African Arguments, is that after 50 years, African leaders have learned nothing.  Dowden's article is a good primer for anyone unfamiliar with the current bout of South Sudanese violence, tracking the historic enmities of the country's different ethnic groups.  It is also, perhaps, a rather rueful reminder that part of the reason we laud and elevate the memory of Mandela, is that his ability to transcend conflict and practise reconcilation remains a uniquely rare characteristic amongst African leaders.

The new leader was Xi Jinping, who even recently was saying he wanted to wipe out corruption in China's politics.  So a good way to do it, clearly, is to ratchet up China's repression of academics who come up with irritating campaigns.  Two such campaigners are being subject to judicial persecution.  Ilham Tothi, an intellectual who has argued for the rights of the minority Uighur people, faces a possible prison sentence.  Xu Zhiyong, a legal scholar who set up grassroots movements to fight social injustice and official corruption, has just started his four year jail sentence.  And so the world turns.

Sex on Sunday

Whatever else is happening at the weekend, the Sunday papers will usually manage to find space for the latest round-up of sex scandals.  They're all pretty dreary, but clearly selling papers, and sometimes - when various celebrities' kiss and tell stories have temporarily dried up - there is even a political angle for the qualities to use as a hook.  If the British political establishment isn't providing enough sex news, then we can always co-opt a European one.  Most papers have Valerie Trierweiler somewhere on their front pages; the French 'first lady' is about to become an ex-first lady following president Francois Hollande's gallant statement that they are separating.  This adds nothing to our general knowledge of the world, other than perhaps a sense of wonderment at the rather dreary-looking Hollande's apparent success rate and lovely gallic approach in avoiding marriage at any cost, and the French did, on the whole, leave this one alone.  French leader has mistress was hardly cutting edge news.

In Britain, the Liberal Democrats are still shuddering from the aftershocks of the Lord Rennard affair, and the Sunday Times published the view that - reluctantly of course - Rennard might just feel compelled to lift the lid on a whole host of past Lib Dem scandals if he's forced out of the party.  Until they helpfully listed them all, I'd forgotten just how subject to sex and drink scandals the third party has been.  And this might be the point to flag up the Spectator article of ex-SGS student Alex Wickham, who writes about how he has been groped, leered at and chatted up by various male Tory MPs, usually in advanced states of inebriation, during his as yet brief time in Parliament as a newshound.  With the trial of former Deputy Speaker Nigel Evans due to start in March, I'd say Wickham's article is a mere preamble to what could come out (pun unintended) about the world of Westminster Tory politics then.  More grist to the Sex on Sunday mill I suppose.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

World War One Revisited

In the centenary year of the start of World War One we have already not been wanting in commentary, controversy and analysis of this watershed catastrophe.  Education Secretary Michael Gove kicked it off with a typically broad-brush and poorly researched article in the Daily Mail.  Gove is no historian, and has no historical credentials, but he did at least put the war on the front page for a while, even if his methodology was roundly criticised by Cambridge Regius Professor of History Richard Evans.  It is also true that there are plenty of myths surrounding the war which could do with a bit of bulldozing, a process that has been going on now for over a decade.

Television historian Dan Snow has written a useful and illuminating guide to ten of the most egregious World War One myths, and why they should be consigned to Tortsky's dustbin of history, on the BBC News site.

The debunking was given popular impetus some years ago with the publication of Gordon Corrigan's book, "Mud, Blood and Poppycock", which that admirable educator and historian John D Clare summarises in a series of well chosen extracts from the book here.

The inventor of the phrase "Lions Led by Donkeys", intended to raise up the British soldier over his incompetent leaders, was historian (and later Tory MP) Alan Clark.  No stranger to controversy, Clark originally attributed the phrase to German general von Falkenhayn, but never produced his evidence and later - apparently - admitted he had made it up for his book, "The Donkeys".  His trenchant view of the generals, however, didn't waver and he wrote a further article condemning Haig in particular, in 1998, which can be found here.

There are plenty of other links - pro and anti Haig and the generals - on John D Clare's website here, while the causes of the war have been subject to just as close a scrutiny as its consequences and conduct.  Max Hastings, Christopher Clark and Margaret MacMillan are three well known historians who waded into print on the subject of causes in their different, and each very readable, books.  It is probably Clark's which achieved most praise from the historical community, but Hastings and MacMillan were also well received.  For those who perhaps don't have time - doubtless because of other reading commitments - to wade through all three of these books, a useful summary article from the History Today blog about the different approaches to understanding the causes of World War One is here.

All in all, 2014 is clearly going to mark a tidal wave of views, articles and books on its notable centenary.  But this is just a taster of 2015, which is after all the centenary of some of World War 1's most notable battles, the bicentenary of Waterloo (which never properly received a centenary commemoration owing to the little matter of World War 1), the 600th anniversary of Agincourt, and the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.  Oh, and the Sutton Grammar School CCF is 100 years old, and I'm 50.  I can hardly wait.