Death by Bar Chart

October 31, 2009 at 9:29 am | Posted in Drugs | Leave a comment

I don’t suppose there are many dignified ways of being sacked by your employer, but ‘Death By Bar Chart’ must be one of the least savoury ways to go. In his lecture to the Centre for Crime & Justice Studies, Professor David Nutt included this rather inconvenient illustration of the level of harm caused by a range of dangerous substances:

drug harm

As you can see, Nutt’s table had alcohol and tobacco ranked as more harmful than a whole host of intoxicants, including cannabis, LSD and ecstacy. From this little illustration, a sprawl of tabloid stories was spawned and the government’s chief adviser on drugs had unconsciously secured his own sacking.

Given his stormy relationship with the Home Office, the sacking itself had an eye-rolling inevitability to it, but when you read the careful, methodical and rather unremarkable content of Nutt’s lecture, you’re really left wondering what all the bloody fuss was about.

It really is tame stuff. At no point does he call for legalisation, or even decriminalisation; he reminds his audience of Britain’s international obligations, and the role he played in securing extra funding for prevention campaigns & rehabilitation centres. Sure, there’s criticism of this government’s wrong-headed decision to reject his advice on cannabis classification, but he did so in an inquisitive, systematic way; even going so far as to produce a chart showing how advice from science was competing with pressure from many other parts of the body politic:

pressures

It’s the lecture of a man who is realistic about the social stigma of illegal drugs, particularly in the mainstream media, and is just frustrated by our inability to compare the harms of consumption with the harms caused by other, completely legal activities. And whilst this might come across to some as an implicit argument for decriminalisation, I’ll let the good professor speak to that.

I think we have to accept young people like to experiment – with drugs and other potentially harmful activities – and what we should be doing in all of this is to protect them from harm at this stage of their lives. We therefore have to provide more accurate and credible information. If you think that scaring kids will stop them using, you’re probably wrong. They are often quite knowledgeable about drugs and the internet has made access to information extremely simple. We have to tell them the truth, so that they use us as their preferred source of information. A fully scientifically-based Misuse of Drugs Act where drug classification accurately reflects harms would be a powerful educational tool. Using the Act in a political way to give messages other than those relating to relative harms undermines the Act and does great damage to the educational message.

In other words, young people can spot the bullshit being fed to them by our Majesty’s expenses-gobbling ex-potheads, and if you really want to have a more effective, mature drugs policy, you need to reform the Misuse of Drugs Act so that it accurately reflects harm. That’s actually a little too moderate for my liking, but would still be a dramatic improvement on the current mess we have.

For me, this sacking reflects just how hysterical this country has become in the drugs debate. I could accept and support Professor Nutt’s removal if he was shown to be a bad scientist or was misleading the public. But a government which sacks a scientist because it simply don’t like the science is operating out of such irrationality and fear that it doesn’t even deserve science advisers in the first place. Sadly, I suspect that’s what has happened here.

Blaming inclusion

October 29, 2009 at 9:22 am | Posted in Education | Leave a comment

When set against the context of the number of children you’ll teach throughout a school year, incidents of violent, abusive or threatening behaviour are actually quite rare. The occasions when a pupil dreams up allegations of abuse by a teacher are rarer still, and the occasions when those false allegations result in disciplinary action or a criminal conviction are even more infrequent.

That said, everyone’s heard at least one horror story about a teacher who’s been the victim to a malicious allegation. It does happen, and more can be done at school, local authority & central government level to ensure that good and safe teachers are protected from career-destroying fairy tales. Ending the atrocious policy of isolating accused teachers from contact with their colleagues would be a good place to start.

So it’s not like I’m ambivelent to or dismissive of a problem which does prey on a lot of teachers’ minds, and the general thrust of Jenni Russell’s piece on the topic is generally correct. Still, it is a Jenni Russell piece, and so every article must contain at least one moment of eye-watering idiocy:

Classrooms are becoming more difficult to manage because the policy of inclusion means that children with emotional, mental or physical difficulties are being put into mainstream schools without the extra support they need to cope.

Whether Russell is basing this on any actual evidence is unclear, but unlikely. For a start, when the DCSF asked researchers to look into the outcomes of inclusion (pdf), they found no evidence – none – of any relationship between inclusion policies and educational attainment. This means that whilst inclusion does not positively affect levels of achievement in a school, nor does it adversely affect it.

I’m also at a loss to understand what ‘extra support’ for support children with social, emotional & behavioural difficulties teachers are being deprived of. Every school in the country has someone responsible for organising provision for children with special educational needs, and they will often work with pupils, teachers, parents, social workers & psychologists to help each child achieve their best level of learning. Could there be more support? Sure, but we’d all have to open our wallets a bit more.

Admittedly, what we have now is an imperfect situation; it’s always going to be imperfect when you have finite resources but an infinite number of potential problems. But I think it’s worth remembering where we were before the policy of inclusion, which Russell blames for getting ‘violent’ teachers sacked. Before the journey towards integration and inclusion, most children with special educational needs were educated separately and as a result suffered castigation and humiliation. This meant that kids without English as a first language wouldn’t interact with their English speaking peers; that vulnerable kids would grow up lacking the confidence to fully participate in society; that children with mild disabilities would be mercilessly taunted as ‘spackers’.

If Russell wants to reverse this policy, shes’s welcome to go & vote for whoever will promise to do just that (the boys in blue might be a good bet). But the least she could do is be a bit more honest about what inclusion is, what it does, and that ending it won’t make teachers, pupils or the wider society any better off.

Ed Balls’ bungling of the Diploma

October 29, 2009 at 7:44 am | Posted in Education | Leave a comment

Diploma BLTL

Personally, I think Barry Sheerman missed a trick when he accused Ed Balls of being ‘a bit of a bully ‘. If I were him, I would’ve asked whether he was also a bit incompetent.

The past few days have a number of bad headlines for the 14-19 Diplomas, the heavily-promoted new qualification which looked fine on Mike Tomlinson’s drawing board but has been blighted in no small part by this government’s own hubris.

In a story as striking for its gumption as its mendacity, the DCSF’s own advertisement for Diplomas has been banned by the Advertising Standards Authority for falsely claiming that the Advanced Diploma, which is meant to be the equivalent of 3.5 A Levels, ‘can get you into any university’. In fact, whilst there are plenty of universities which will accept your Advanced Diploma, there’s still very little enthusiasm for them in the elite Russell Group.

Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but I happen to think that lying to young people – and about a decision as important & consequential as what subject they choose to study – is a pretty grubby act, irrespective of whether it was done by design or out of error. And we wonder why youngsters don’t like authority figures.

The second story is less shocking, but further underscores how badly the government has mismanaged the rollout of this qualification. According to the Association of Colleges, many learners are finding their Diplomas very hard, meaning that some colleges are reluctant to accept lower ability students, effectively cutting them off from what was meant to become the ‘qualification of choice’ . Parts of the qualification may need an urgent re-write.

This is bad news for two reasons. First, those students with below average scores are exactly the kind of people the Diploma was meant to help. By mixing academic work with vocational & skills-based learning, young people who had previously struggled with A-Levels might’ve found a better route to achievement & employment.

Secondly, it reinforces what has been the Diploma’s most crippling problem; its lack of credibility. New qualifications are always treated with suspicion & resistance, and that probably doubled when Balls got over-excited and dreamed publicly that they’d replace GCSE & A-Levels. He would’ve been better off keeping his mouth shut.

Not only that, but his department grossly over-estimated the number of students who would start taking the Diploma, fell 20,000 short of its target, saw it criticised for lacking academic rigour, rejected by the CBI, and then encouraged FE colleges to set them up whilst they were suffering a funding crisis. It’s been accused of being too expensive , damned for struggling to teach students the three R’s, has been incredibly awkward to timetable and accused of creating ‘SatNav students’ .

For those who see the Diploma as a potentially brilliant way of encouraging aspiration & social mobility, the way Labour has handled its introduction is dismaying. In a field so heavily scrutinised, and filled with such a diverse array of stakeholders, it was never going to be easy to bring the Diploma into mainstream education. But the gap between government rhetoric and newspaper headlines has become so cavernous that the very future of this qualification is being put at risk. A qualification will live or die on its reception from three groups: employers, universities and students. Right now, the Diploma is so tangled up in bleak headlines that none of these groups seem easy to impress.

There are, of course, exceptions to this bleak outlook, and local authorities would do well to study what they’re doing right in places like Bolton, which seems to have adapted to it incredibly well. But despite the valiant exceptions, the Diploma is still in trouble, and its future in the coming Tory government seems uncertain .

What’s become clear is that if the Diplomas turn into a failure, the blame will not fall on the people co-ordinating them, or those who’re teaching or studying them. No, the blame will fall squarely on the Department for Children, Schools and Families and its bungling Secretary of State. If that happens, being branded a bully will really be the least of Ed Balls’ problems.

Jordan king expected ‘more, sooner’ on Mideast peace.

October 19, 2009 at 8:02 pm | Posted in International | Leave a comment

Someone’s Hope Juice is running low:

In an interview with Italian daily La Repubblica, King Abdullah II said the region’s hopes for peace were huge at the start of the Obama administration, but now sees the goal getting farther away.

“I’ve heard people in Washington talking about Iran, again Iran, always Iran,” Abdullah was quoted as saying.

“But I insist on, and keep insisting on the Palestinian question: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most serious threat to the stability of the region and the Mediterranean,” he added.

There are some things King Abdullah gets right in this interview. He’s correct, for instance, that Israel-Palestine is still the greatest threat to regional instabilty, and that whilst Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons might cause a frightening arms race, those seeking confrontation with Ahmadinejad really do elevate him to a status he doesn’t deserve. More importantly, whilst things have improved on the West Bank, the situation in the Gaza Strip remains a humanitarian emergency in a way that the Iran problem isn’t.

Abdullah’s warning that there is a ‘window of opportunity’ in the region which is threatening to close also happens to be an argument Marc Lynch & Brian Katulis made in a report for the Centre for American Progress, which calls on the Obama administration to build on its initial positive steps in the region by helping strengthen Palestinian civic institutions, take immediate steps to help in Gaza and conduct better public outreach to explain its objectives to the Palestinian and Israeli public.

I’m surprised, however, by the King’s disappointment at diplomatic developments (or lack of them); surely he’s lived long enough & seen enough American Presidents fail this challenge not to set his hopes too high. Personally, I think Obama’s initial moves were encouraging: his appointments of Clinton & Mitchell showed seriousness of purpose, his Cairo speech was a part of a necessary rebranding, and his repeated calls for a settlement freeze showed understanding of how serious an impediment that was to progress.

I guess the question of America’s effectiveness ultimately boils down to this: has the administration dealt with Israeli instransigence over settlements in the right way? Alas, that’s a pretty difficult thing to answer. The Obama administration could have been more forceful over settlements, and could even – as George H. W. Bush did in ’91 – have made a settlement freeze a condition of Israel’s aid package. But it’s Congress, not the White House, which controls the aid Israel receives, and as Bush 41 found out when he tried to toughen America’s stance, Congress does not react well. As Stephen Zunes reminds us, in ’91, Bush was excoriated for the proposal by Congressmen insistent that aid should come with no conditions. Some of the most prominent people attacking him were Democrats.

So if the Obama administration doesn’t feel there’s anything it can do at its end to force Israel into a settlement freeze, perhaps it can do something at the other end. There is evidence to suggest that Israelis are turning away from these settlements and regarding them more as an expensive liability than a necessity, and that Netanyahu’s government has a far tougher line than its own, frustrated population. Maybe the Obama administration could exploit this by practicing the kind of public outreach proposed by Lynch & Katulis.

Maybe what the administration needed in addition to the Cairo speech was an address in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Perhaps by restating his own commitment to Israel’s security & explaining why he believes the settlements put that security at risk, the U.S. could find a way of dislodging some of the stubbornness which is rife in that country’s political class.

This is all theoretical, of course, and there may be very good reasons why it’s a very bad idea. But I do think that more could be achieved if the administration sought to reach out to the Israeli public in the same way as they’ve reached out to people in the ‘Arab world’.

Shorter Pilger: Obama won the Nobel because he’s black

October 16, 2009 at 7:23 pm | Posted in Idiot Hall of Fame | Leave a comment

obama-official-photo

I think Jay-Z said it best when he sighed:

“Every step you take they remind you you’re ghetto”

Y’know, after he’d offended a whole bunch of people by dismissing Barack Obama as a ‘glossy Uncle Tom’, I had hoped that John Pilger would’ve buried his race card deep in the ground. Alas, the old fool just can’t help himself, as whenever the President enjoys some measure of success, Pilger feels a duty to remind us all what his skin colour is:

Obama, the smooth operator from Chicago via Harvard, was enlisted to restore what he calls “leadership” throughout the world. The Nobel Prize committee’s decision is the kind of cloying reverse racism that has beatified the man for no reason other than he is a member of a minority and attractive to liberal sensibilities, if not to the Afghan children he kills.

With apparently no self-awareness, Pilger then goes on to mock the ‘Call of Obama’, which is “not unlike a dog whistle” to attract “the besotted and boneheaded”. Oh, there’s certainly a dog whistle here, but it’s not being blown by the President. No, it’s a whistle which is more often blown by the birthers, troofers, tea-baggers, hacks and half-wits who lay waste to our political discourse. It’s depressing, if unsurprising, to see Pilger join their number.

Of course I could wax lyrical about the man’s early journalistic exploits; his brave, penetrative, excoriatingly human portrayals of war and injustice. But the reason I won’t do that is because he seems bent on wrecking his own legacy. In the past year, Pilger has transformed into the Melanie Phillips of the left: overwrought, resentful, misanthropic, inaccurate, conspiratorial and, ultimately, totally irrelevant.

Fresh hope for a climate deal?

October 12, 2009 at 1:04 pm | Posted in Climate Change | Leave a comment

If you’ve been paying any sort of attention to the protracted, furious and utterly miserable fight over healthcare in the U.S. Congress, you probably won’t be holding out too much hope that this same body can agree to tough measures to combat climate change. Until yesterday, that is, when hope was restored by a quite unusual source:

First, we agree that climate change is real and threatens our economy and national security. That is why we are advocating aggressive reductions in our emissions of the carbon gases that cause climate change. We will minimize the impact on major emitters through a market-based system that will provide both flexibility and time for big polluters to come into compliance without hindering global competitiveness or driving more jobs overseas.

Whilst to most eyes the above paragraph is a fairly unremarkable, bog-standard political position, what makes it incredibly significant is that it was co-authored by Lindsey Graham, the Republican Senator for South Carolina. In an op-ed which appeared in yesterday’s New York Times, Graham & Democrat John Kerry spelled out their commitment to reaching a deal on climate change and pushing it through the Senate.

It’s the partnership between Kerry & Graham which gives me hope that an agreement can be reached. Graham is a hardcore Republican who doesn’t deviate too often from his party’s platform. But despite his trenchant conservatism, he is rational and seems increasingly eager to talk his own party out of its extremism – even to the point of publicly slapping-down Glenn Beck. Crucially, he also has power and influence on the rest of his party, and putting his name on any legislation could encourage the moderate Republicans in the Senate (all two of them) to follow suit.

It’s very early days, of course, and a speedy resolution to the health care impasse is vital for a deal to be reached before the mid-term elections. Still, it’s one to watch, I think.

About those thuggish teens

October 12, 2009 at 10:14 am | Posted in Education | 1 Comment

You might well have seen this already, but last week’s Guardian ran a survey of the attitudes of teenage boys and found that, in spite of the caricature, our young lads happen to be ambitious & mostly happy in their school/family/social lives. 

What did shock me, however, was seeing the extent to which this caricature dominates the media being proven with numbers:

In the survey, conducted by Echo, 78% of teenage boys said adults had a higher opinion of teenage girls than boys. An Echo survey earlier this year, commissioned by Women in Journalism, examined the language used to describe teenage boys in the media. The most common word was “yobs” (which appeared 591 times over a year), followed by thugs (254 times), sick (119), feral (96) and hoodie (60). More than 60% of the stories about teenage boys concerned crime, and 90% of these showed them in a bad light. Boys interviewed by the Guardian for a report in tomorrow’s Weekend magazine said they felt demonised by press and politicians.

Is there any wonder?

Gove & education: one last thing

October 11, 2009 at 3:33 pm | Posted in Education | 1 Comment

I’ll quit this issue soon, but there was one other part of Gove’s speech last week which I found pretty irritating:

The body responsible for writing the curriculum – the QDCA – spends more than one hundred million pounds every year – and after hiring an army of consultants, squadrons of advisers and regiments of bureaucrats they still wrote a syllabus for the Second World War without any place for Winston Churchill.

I guess it’s always possible that he’s right. Maybe there’s some secret document doing the rounds, written by scores of ‘unaccountable quangocrats’ which does indeed remove Winston Churchill from the history curriculum. But it would have to be a secret document, because when you hop over to the QCDA’s website, you’ll actually find quite a few references to Britain’s Greatest Ever Tory. He’s mentioned here, here and here, in these guidance notes for teachers and, rather inconveniently for Mr Gove, in this rather unwieldy PDF (p22):

A world study after 1900: A study of some of the significant individuals, events and developments from across the twentieth century, including the two World Wars, the Holocaust, the Cold War, and their impact on Britain, Europe and the wider world.

[...]

Examples for 13: a world study after 1900 Individuals: Winston Churchill; Adolf Hitler; Joseph Stalin; Benito Mussolini; Franklin Roosevelt; Mahatma Gandhi; Mao Zedong; Martin Luther King.

So what obscure document have I dredged up for this snidey little ‘gotcha!’ post? A little thing called the National Curriculum.

Now, I don’t really expect Michael Gove to have read the damn thing – I haven’t even done that myself yet, and I’m expecting to teach. But I do think it’d be a nice if he stopped telling other people who haven’t read it that hundreds of millions of pounds are being squandered to remove Churchill from classrooms.

This isn’t to say there’s uniform agreement on Sir Winston’s prominance in history classrooms, and I happen to think that people should be able to disagree in good faith without being accused of being either elitist or practicing ‘dumbing down’. Nor should it detract from the points in my earlier post that developing skills should take greater prominance over factual recall.

But I would hope that the least we could expect from a wannabe Secretary of State was having a decent fact checker on his staff. Perhaps we should set it as homework.

The Miseducation of Michael Gove

October 10, 2009 at 7:52 pm | Posted in Education | 3 Comments

520x

Given where I am and what I’ve decided to do with my life, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’ve been casting an apprehensive eye over Michael Gove’s plans for education reform. Like many people, I’m not exactly reassured.

I suppose it’s worth bearing in mind that there’s a difference between the harmless conference season patter Gove practices now and the more mundane – but massively consequential – steps he’ll take as Secretary of State. On arriving at the DCSF, he’ll hopefully be informed that most schools do, in fact, have school uniforms, that classes are often set by ability and that for all the horrid neglect of Winston Churchill in history lessons, kids are at least not being taught that WWII was won single-handedly by a smilin’ Joe Stalin. What plays well in the papers and to a conference crowd often gets forgotten or watered-down when the realities of government actually set in, and that probably holds true with these proposals as well.

But what I’ve found interesting – and very frustrating – about the past week has been what it’s revealed about Gove’s narrow, straightjacketed view of what learning is for, and how it’s best achieved.

For instance, take this list of topics Gove wants kids to be taught in history lessons. All our Greatest Brit hits are on there: the Roman invasion, 1066, the Bill of Rights, the Napoleonic Wars, the Great Reform Act, both world wars (with particular emphasis on the awesomeness of a former Tory PM!) and something rather vaguely called “Modern history to the present”.

Now, there’s nothing at all wrong with having knowledge about these or any other areas of British (or even – gasp! – non-British) history, and it’d come in extremely handy if your son or daughter ever wanted to work in a museum or on Time Team. However, the emphasis here is on what is taught, when it should really be about what is learnt.

A few years ago, former Ofsted chief inspector Mike Tomlinson produced a report offering a vision for quite far-reaching reform of 14-19 education in which GCSEs and A-Levels would be replaced by a range of different diplomas. The suggestions were mostly ignored by the government but for two key areas: a range of diploma lines would be rolled-out (albeit very slowly), and the whole curriculum would pay much greater attention to developing skills.

It is this ‘skills agenda’ which is currently writ large on the education landscape. Under greater competition from developing economies than ever before, Tomlinson was just one of many people to identify the need for children to develop a generic, transferable set of personal, learning & thinking skills which could equip them to thrive in a jobs market that none of us can predict. The accumulation of knowledge is still important, but developing a child’s innate ability to acquire knowledge for themselves is equally vital.

These aims aren’t ‘fashionable nonsense’ dreamt up by an ‘educational establishment’ hobbled on ‘political correctness'; they were devised with the express wish of sustaining – nay, revitalising – the economic competitiveness of UK PLC.

Does the Conservative Party share these aims? If this prescriptive, restrictive list of history topics is at all representative of how the Tories view teaching, I would assume they don’t. It’s a list that reeks of rote learning; of cramming hundreds of tiny little facts in a child’s head, with less time to help them learn how to think, argue, critique, or imagine. What this kind of thing is really about is satisfying our mystifying fetish to test, test, test children into automatons.

I could, of course, be reading too much into a little list which was passed onto a curious journalist, and the Tories might be fully committed to allowing the skills agenda to flourish. Nonetheless, it’s important to ask these questions because Gove’s attack on educators was so broad, so uncharitable and so hyperbolic that it acted as though the past 10 years have been nothing but a long line of ‘fashionable nonsense’, ‘political correctness’ and miserable failure.

Such thinking would be deluded. Labour’s not got a great track record on education, but it has got some key decisions (Every Child Matters, promoting inclusion, developing skills) correct, and it’s always difficult to overturn good policy. Besides, times and attitudes have changed, teaching practices have altered, ways of thinking about teaching & learning have transformed and I suspect that Gove’s apparent intention to revisit the flawed old practices of the past will be met with even greater resistance than he currently expects. He may find, as another history-bound Tory might’ve said, that the teachers are not for turning.

Via Coventry.

October 10, 2009 at 7:50 pm | Posted in Blogging about blogging | 2 Comments

UK Trip 397

Meet Lady Godiva. Liked nakedness. Hated taxes. Loved by Coventry.

Hello,

Not sure if you’ll remember me, but once upon a time I ran a semi-regular blog about various Matters Of Great Importance (Which Only I Am Right About). Then the updating stopped as I moved to the West Midlands to learn about how to get people much younger than me to do some learning.

Anyway, I’m still in the West Midlands, but will try to stop Being Rubbish and get back into the swing of regular updates. As I’ve said earlier, the posts will probably get much briefer, and there’ll be a fair bit more link dumping, but at least you’ll be able to see different things if you’ve got so much time on your hands that you visit every day.

And contrary to everything I’ve just said, the next post is pretty long. I know, typical...

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