Saturday, 22 March 2008

Liberating Education

Who runs our schools?

Here in the UK tinkering by successive governments has left a confused picture. State schools are paid for by Local Education Authorities (LEAs) that are, for the most part, synonymous with County Councils or Unitary Authorities giving these bodies considerable influence over the schools they fund. These councils receive ringfenced funding from the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF)* who also directly fund some school activities giving them the right to dictate some of what schools do.

Attempts by Government to wrest control away from LEAs have resulted in unpaid boards of governors, the majority of whom are parent and community representatives, being responsible for the strategic management of the school, in general acting in a similar way to the board of directors of a PLC.

However, here comes the crunch, the day to day management of the school is vested in the headteacher, who, in secondary schools these days, is a full time manager of the school and very unlikely to actually teach any classes. Partially because of the sheer logistics of getting governors in to schools, though largely because that is how headteachers want it, it is the headteachers themselves, together with their senior leadership/management teams that are in control; most secondary school governing bodies are little more than rubber stamps for the headteacher's decisions, it has been my dubious privilege to hear heads boast about how much control they have over their governing bodies.

When headteachers and senior managers make poor decisions who carries the can? Not themselves nor, usually, the governing bodies nor the DCSF. It is the LEA, and, when the decision has a financial cost, consequently the Council Tax payer. I have personally seen a colleague make a well founded claim for discrimination where the school had gone against the LEA's own rules and policies and was amazed that the LEA had to defend the indefensible whilst having no ability to force the school to behave properly or discipline those who were in the wrong. Once my colleague won the LEA had to pay out adding to my, and every other tax payer's, Council Tax bill.

This situation is obviously not a healthy one; we need properly accountable schools that educate our children to high standards in the manner that we prefer and that are accountable to those that ultimately pay for them.

It should be the function of the State, whether at local or national level, to ensure schools are properly funded and that consistently high educational standards are maintained. The question is, how best structure the schools and provide that education?

Each school must be accountable to the consumers of education, that is the pupils and the communities in which they live. This accountability should, for reasons of practicality, be exercised through boards who hold, in trust, the values of the school made up of parents acting for their children children themselves as they become responsible enough to exercise the trust themselves, teachers who have chosen to work in a particular kind of school because of the values it holds and other members of the community that share those values.

It is plain that no one kind of school can satisfy the aspirations of all sectors of society so this plurality of education systems must be recognised and accommodated. There is a place for the technical, vocational school, for schools based on a particular religious faith, be that Catholic, Anglican, Jewish or Islamic, for the Steiner Waldorf school, for schools that address the individual requirements of pupils whose needs cannot be accommodated elsewhere for home schooling or for any legitimate method of education for which their exists a community.

Such a plurality will liberate children from failed monolithic systems and will provide for them to be educated in a manner which will enable success for all rather than just for the privileged.

*formerly known as the Department for Education and Skills, formerly the Department for Education and Employment, formerly the Department of Education and Science, formerly the Ministry of education.

A Middle Class Education (System)

In England (as opposed to the rest of the UK) the education system has always been the property of the middle classes, it is their way of perpetuating their hegemony.

Witness how the post war education reforms that brought in the divide between grammar schools and secondary moderns was hijacked. A system of academically oriented grammar schools and trade oriented secondary moderns was perverted into one of success and failure. Grammar schools quickly became better funded, better equipped and better staffed, did you know that teachers in grammar schools were paid more for teaching smaller classes than their secondary modern colleagues?

Witness how the CSE, intended to give the less academically able pupil something to aim at, was quickly derided until the only grade that was worth having was the the top grade 1.

The introduction of the comprehensive should have ironed out many of the differences in schools, however the middle classes voted with their feet and moved into areas where they could all send their children to the same schools. These schools raised far more money through voluntary donations and fundraising and were also able to secure for themselves, the best public funding.

Recent scandals around so called parental choice and school admissions policy have all been about middle class, middle income parents getting their children into the right schools.

I concede that, even when children from differing backgrounds attend the same schools it is those with parents who see the value in education that do the best. However, the principle determining factor in the ability to support a child's education remains money, and even when these differences are are absent the child whose parents choose to spend money on a foreign exchange trip rather than a games console tend to be those who had better educations themselves.

Finally an interesting point to note and something well worth thinking about; the best performing children in any education system are the children of teachers.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Why Immigration?

Let's face facts; the UK, Great Britain and Northern Ireland, is a great place to live.

Who says so? The nearly 600,000 people who come to live and work in the UK every year, the vast majority of whom are legal migrants. If this was such a bad place to live the out-migration figure would be a lot higher than its current 400,000

Initially, of course, the habits of some immigrants may seem unusual to the rest of us and we notice new shops and places of worship as well as signs in other languages. However to claim, as some have recently done, that the makeup of Britain's high streets is being radically altered by current immigration levels is patently untrue.

Slowly the new changes become a part of the tapestry of life and new populations establish businesses that are part of what makes our day to day lives British. What would our high streets look like without Marks & Spencer, our shopping baskets without Patak's or the pages of the FT without the likes of Courtaulds or GlaxoSmithKline?

It is hard to think of anything tangible, other than the weather, that is British that has not been brought in from somewhere else.


The attempts of the film and music industry trade cartels to treat all those who copy works that those bodies perceive as their own as criminals is somewhat laughable, as seen in the recent documentary Fake Trade. It is based upon five dubious premises:

Firstly that those who copy at home or fileshare for no gain are just as criminal as international counterfeiting gangs making millions of dollars. Home copying does not launder money, it does not survive by forcing people into near slavery, its only impacts are on the increased dissemination of materials which would otherwise be restricted by the ability to pay and on the failing market in those forms of intellectual property distribution.

Secondly, that such copying is somehow the same as counterfeiting safety critical items like pharmaceuticals or car tyres or items with both a tangible and intangible value such as designer watches or clothing. A computer copy of film or music track neither safety critical nor does it have a tangible value, it cannot be worn, it does not tell the time, it is entirely ephemeral, it performs no function other than stimulating the emotions or intellect.

Thirdly, that the current system meets the needs of the market. There is an abundance of supply; more people wish to make music and films than the purchasing power of the market can sustain yet consumers do not see the benefits that this would normally entail. The normal reasons for this kind of breakdown are failures in the market infrastructure such as physical transport problems external factors such as general economic failure or the operation of cartels and monopolies that restrict supply to raise prices above the level the market would otherwise reach.

Fourthly, that they have an immutable right to make money the way they always have done. In this way they resemble such economic dinosaurs as are to be found in the tobacco industry; they must either evolve their way out of that economic niche or die.

Finally, and most economically erroneously that the market exists for the benefit neither of the producer or the customer but that of the intermediary. Such systems have often been promoted throughout history and have always foundered without considerable state intervention to prop up what become moribund monopolies. Eventually the state tires of subsidising the profits of these private cartels and legislates a new regulatory framework.

It is up to those of us who recognise these facts to lobby our representatives to hasten the end of the old order and replace it with something befitting the 21st century rather than one that was suited to the needs of the 18th century.

Clearly we are in a period of transition between the old copyright based business model and what ever will replace it. It is less than three hundred years since the Statute of Anne brought the modern concept of copyright into law. This itself had only been introduced following fifty years of upheaval in which the old system of licensed printing had been brought to its knees by the increasing efficiency of the printing industry.

The RIAA, MPAA et al are in the position of a Town Criers' Guild objecting to literacy and printing because they promote the reading of newspapers. Now Pandora's box has been opened there is no way to cram digital copying and downloading back into it.

It may well be that the consequence of the developing technologies of today will be to change recorded media into a promotional tool for live events. Alternatively, media groups may only be able to sell recorded work if there is sufficient added value, creating a listening or viewing experience that cannot be obtained by the mere playback of a digital file.

Political Correctness

To get things rolling I'm White, British (and proud), Muslim and middle aged. I'm also disabled, but why? Being disabled is not something the particular health condition does, rather it is something that society does because of the health condition and its up to society to moderate those effects, not me.

Political correctness should be seen in the same light; when society causes a problem by its use of language or behaviour then its up to that society to redress the balance by modifying that use of language or behaviour.

I believe problems with political correctness arise in three principle ways.

Firstly, when assumptions are made that offence has been caused when it hasn't; this can usually be attributed to over zealous officials or hyper sensitive liberals. I, myself was guilty of this when, many moons ago as a young political researcher I was asked to draft what I called a 'Charter for Elder Citizens' to be discussed by a group of older people. I agonized over what term to replace pensioners with as that was considered pejorative. When the document came back I noticed the main change they had made straight away, the title, 'Pensioner's Charter'. Moral - Ask first.

Secondly, when people don't think their causing offence or that offence is secondary to their right to carry on living as they have always done. Moral - Don't be part of the problem be part of the solution.

Thirdly, when a minority of a group hijack the views of that group for their own ends. This can only happen when society as a whole has allowed itself to ignore the feelings of those within its own midst. Moral - If you think you've listened enough, listen again.

The next time you're thinking should I say that, make sure you've examined you own motivations before you speak and when somebody else is getting on their high horse ask yourself, do they have the right to decide what other people should think do or say. I know what my answer would be every time.