Not Every Child Matters

February 17, 2010 at 3:41 pm | Posted in Asylum, British Politics | 7 Comments
Yarl's Wood

A drawing by a child at Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre, taken from the Children's Commissioner's report. You can probably work out the message.

When you govern to get rid of bad headlines, you shouldn’t really be surprised when your policies contradict each other.

In 2001 the government responded to hysteria over ‘bogus’ asylum seekers by opening Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre; a clearing house for folks whose asylum claims had been rejected and were therefore to be deported back to their countries of origin.

In its nine miserable years, Yarl’s Wood has experienced suicides and self-harming, riots, hunger strikes, a fire and the quite damning verdict that it was unsafe for the families being held there. Of course, none of this has deterred Labour from incarcerating men, women and children in facilities like this for however long the UK Border Agency sees fit.

A few years later, in response to the horrendous death of Victoria Climbie, the government passed the Children Act, which established in law that services for children must incorporate Every Child Matters into its policy and practice. For the first time, every child, regardless of their circumstances, should have the support to: stay healthy, stay safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution to society and have some measure of economic well-being.

On the evidence provided by the Children’s Commissioner, the detention of children at Yarl’s Wood is incompatible with the standards set out in Every Child Matters. The failure to address or even assess a child’s psychological well-being, the shoddy medical record-keeping, the traumatic and often heavy-handed way removals are carried-out, and the prospect of indefinite detention all stand in contravention of Yarl’s Wood’s obligation to keep children safe and healthy. What should trouble the most is that standards have actually improved – I dread to think what they were like before.

Sir Al Aynsley-Green’s conclusion that children at Yarl’s Wood suffer great mental distress only confirms reports, both anecdotal and academic, that it is not fit to look after them. This study (PDF) found children suffering from a range of mental health problems, which manifested as anxiety, depression, wetting the bed, soiling themselves, having problems sleeping and even displaying abnormally sexualised behaviour. By the standards of the Children Act – by the standards of our civic morality – we cannot tolerate detention when it damages them so profoundly.

If Every Child Matters is to mean anything, it has to mean that every single child, regardless of their circumstances or background, should be protected from physical and mental harm. The detention of the children at Yarl’s Wood demonstrates the shallowness of Labour’s commitment to that aim; no, not every child matters. In fact, those that matter the least are the most vulnerable.


On not voting

February 11, 2010 at 10:54 pm | Posted in British Politics, Election Reform | 4 Comments

For reasons I’ll explain further in the future, I refuse to vote in the next election. This isn’t because of apathy, belligerent idealism or the absence of available parties, but because the government seems set to preside over an election in which over 70,000 of its citizens are unlawfully disenfranchised. At this moment, I cannot consider exercising my right to vote when tens of thousands of prisoners are illegally deprived of theirs.

Now let’s consider a fictional scenario. Let’s say that the last Queen’s Speech included a bill to make voting compulsory, that it had sneaked through Parliament and comes into force on the day of the general election. Under such a scenario, my tiny, irrelevant fit of pique over the government’s law-breaking would be elevated from a quiet, inconsequential protest to a criminal act itself. Oh, the irony.

One of the basic errors made in advocating for compulsory voting is diagnosing the refusal to vote as something apolitical. It isn’t. Leaving aside my fictional scenario, the British public isn’t stupid. The vast majority of us know there’s an election coming up and will know when it’s taking place, but what we choose to do with that information is our business.

If large swathes of us decide not to vote – either out of disgust, ignorance, lack of cultural capacity or, yes, apathy – then that’s actually far more reflective of the social and political condition of this nation than any scenario in which we’re forced into the ballot box.

But more worrying than that, the arguments for compulsory voting are unnerving because they rest on the underlying assumption that if people aren’t turning out to vote, then that’s the fault of the people. Therefore, to preserve the legitimacy of the political system, we must make the people turn up to vote. The only onus on the political class is to pass the legislation to make it so.

Even if this were to happen, it would be about as reflective of the public’s faith in politics as having 1,000 Facebook friends is a reflection on your character. It provides the happy illusion of an engaged citizenry & a vibrant democracy but reveals nothing of their engagement with political life. You can have 1,000 Facebook friends and still be a tosser. You can have a 95% turnout rate and still have a broken politics.

Finally, it’s not even necessary. There are still countless different ways you can re-engage an understandably jaded electorate without forcing them to the ballot box. Make voting day a bank holiday. See what effect AV has. Engage with your constituents. If compulsory voting is the first solution you reach for, then you’re demonstrating an absence of imagination.

Voting is an important and gratifying civic duty – I really would recommend to anyone. But the moment you tell people that voting is compulsory is the moment an important part of freedom – and democracy – is lost.

Don Paskini: Player Hater

February 9, 2010 at 6:53 pm | Posted in Blogging about blogging, British Politics | 10 Comments

On most days, Liberal Conspiracy is a tight clique; full of merry, consensual and self-referential bloggers who spend their free time tweeting ‘shout outs’, drinking chai tea and penning polite posts about electoral reform. Even on those days when bloggers have beef about a particular issue, it’s still rare for someone to upset the cosy comity of the clique.

Don Paskini, on the other hand, is in no mood for such pleasantries. Here he is playing Beanie Sigel to my Jay-Z and ‘debunking’ my ‘myth’ of Labour carpetbagging. Dissed in my own ‘hood – that’s cold!

Just as a point of face-saving nit-pickery, carpetbagging is only ‘mythical’ if it never occurs or has only ever happened on odd, extremely rare occasions. Paskini’s not in a position to claim this unless he’s willing to presuppose levels of virtue in their decision-making that I certainly wouldn’t be comfortable making. In fact, you’ll notice that his response doesn’t actually seek to defend Berger from the carpetbagging charge – he merely proves she’s a carpetbagger defending a majority of only 5,000.

So what Paskini wants to argue is not that carpetbagging is a myth – for it isn’t – just that its frequency is overstated by critics. He makes that case very well, and demonstrates that it’s problematic for a writer to bemoan the loss of local activism whilst he himself avoids close scrutiny of individual constituencies.

However, will many of these local boys and girls done good will go on to be leading players in the Parliamentary Labour Party? Or will the Cabinets and Shadow cabinets of the future be mostly constituted of ‘high fliers’ who slobbed around in someone’s think tank or ‘inner circle’ until an appropriate constituency became available?

I think recent history suggests the latter is most likely, and that raises the prospect of a self-perpetuating political class which is big on mingling and Westminster lingo, but a little short on socialism, invention and real world life experience. Paskini is welcome to try to persuade me otherwise.

I much preferred Paul Cotterill’s response to my post, not just because it includes that most self-evident of truths (“Neil is right”) but because his proposal for radically altering the way MPs are funded is a serious and compelling solution to quite a few of the problems afflicting our political system.

The hands-down winner of this whole debate, though, has to be Julia Smith, whose comment is so good that I’m quite incapable of producing a decent response:

I do see what you’re saying, but just to stretch the football/politics way past breaking point: in the good old/bad old days, to be a prospective Labour MP was to be thrown head first into a near-suicide battle against one of the Tory grandees. (Remember how surprised Stephen Twigg was to win?)

After a couple of such soul-crushing defeats, if they were still interested in standing, they might be considered battle-scarred enough for a tilt at a safe seat. It’s akin to throwing Ngog on at 3-0 down with 10 minutes on the clock. Sure, he’ll try hard, but to not much effect and frustration and dented confidence will be the main result.

It’s much better to give your promising stars of tomorrow a run out when you’re 2-0 up at home and the pressure’s off. They can taste the Anfield atmosphere, the experienced players can keep an eye on them and, crucially, they can’t do any damage! Some of our Academy got such a run out on Boxing Day against Wolves and I’m hopeful that something similar is happening in Wavertree, although I know it could be the usual Labour Party ‘on message’ bleeper instincts at work.

But still, I’m hopeful. It’s something all Scousers are very good at ;-)

As they say in the rap game , I just got murdered on my own shit. Maybe it’s time to retire.

Selected Reading (06/02/09)

February 6, 2010 at 3:19 pm | Posted in Misc. | 11 Comments

Still not properly back yet, so here’s some more stuff from the past few days:

  • Former Liberian President Charles Taylor, testifying at his own war crimes trial, says that Pat Robertson (yes, that one) was his man in Washington.
  • Johann Hari on the hope from Haiti.
  • Sunder Katwala continues to whack the Tories over their ‘Broken Britain’ meme.
  • David Semple reminds us what a vile racist Tom Tancredo is.
  • Every time I read Bloggerheads, I’m left thinking “goodness, the internet’s got some horrid people on it”.
  • You’ve probably already seen this but it bears repeating: this ruling by Cherie Blair is a dozen different kinds of WTF.
  • Lastly, a filmaker from California thought it’d be interesting to take photos of vans. The results are here.

Oh, and this place has a new theme. The image is by the scarily talented Ben Heine.

Anything I should be reading? Let me know in the comments. Trust me, I’ll welcome the distraction.

The rise of the carpetbaggers

February 5, 2010 at 11:42 pm | Posted in British Politics, New Labour | 6 Comments

If you trawl Liverpool FC’s unofficial fan forums, it won’t be long before you stumble upon a long thread lamenting the lack of scousers in the squad. For a city so used to producing pedigree footballers (the Premiership years alone brought Fowler & McManaman, Gerrard & Carragher), it’s frustrating watching the parade of sub-par foreigners appear on the subs bench, put in a few derisory performances, and then disappear into obscurity.

The names are scarred into the memory; mentioned only as punchlines: Salif Diao, Djimi Traore, Sean Dundee, Bruno Cheyrou. Each expensive flop is accompanied by a question that remains unanswered: was there really not a single young scouser who could’ve done as good bad a job, or even slightly better? Has the city’s talent pool really drained so badly that it’s producing players who aren’t even fit for the subs bench?

You can see shades of this frustration in the backlash over Luciana Berger’s selection as Labour’s candidate for Liverpool Wavertree. Ms Berger is hardly at fault for being young, for harbouring a desire for public service or for possessing qualities which have made her appealing to London’s Labour hierarchy. She may, indeed, prove to be an excellent MP.

But what I read in the exasperated responses to her selection is a refrain I’ve heard many times in & around the Shankly Gates: was there not a single person, in a city of over 400,000 people, who could’ve done as good a job? The city expects an Emlyn Hughes or a Jamie Carragher – someone who, at some level, can understand & relate to the culture & traditions of the people they serve. Instead, they’re getting a Neil Ruddock.

In fact, I’m perhaps being a little hard on Ruddock, for at least the lumbering oaf who embarassed the reds’ back four would’ve been able to respond well to a question about who Bill Shankly was. Now, not knowing or caring about football hardly disqualifies you from public office, but not being able to possess the slightest reverence, sensitivity or even awareness of part of the city’s history and tradition is problematic at best, and to then blame your ignorance on being female is just embarrassing.

In my experience, scousers are no more insular than the inhabitants of any other large town or city. But they do possess a distinctive history and culture which they are deeply proud of and enjoy sharing with the rest of the world. They deserve – like every constituency in the country deserves – an MP who can recall this rich history, revel in its traditions and understand the hopes and fears of the people they wish to represent. Does Ms Berger possess that understanding, or is her main qualification that she’s passed through a few times on business, or spent a few hours on the Albert Docks?

Really, this post isn’t even about Luciana Berger; a similar piece could’ve been written about David or Ed Miliband, Ed Balls or Yvette Cooper. But her selection will only increase the sense that Labour regards the role of MP as some glorified graduate trainee programme, and sees constituencies as regional call centres, expected to dilligently enact the faxed dictats from central office.

One argument made by opponents of proportional representation is that it would remove the link between an MP and his/her constituents, yet they never stop to recognise that, thanks to the centralising of political parties, this link is already reaching the end of its tether. Perhaps the defeat of Ms Berger would send a symbolic – but important – message from Liverpool to London that the days of carpetbagging must end if Labour is to re-establish itself with what was once its heartlands.

Selected Reading (29/01/10)

January 29, 2010 at 8:41 am | Posted in Misc. | 3 Comments

This’ll be the last post for a week or so – essays to finish, job interviews to attend, etc etc. So until I reappear with some words of my own, here are some other folks:

  • Mark Easton wonders what’s wrong with inequality
  • Johann Hari on the corruption in Washington D.C.
  • Alex Massie on George Osborne’s belief that he can make us behave.
  • David Axe wonders why China is rigging artillery to commercial cargo ships.
  • Daniel Larison discusses GOP obstructionism
  • Charli Carpenter asks why there was so little foreign policy content in Obama’s SOTU.
  • And after Chris Matthews forgot Obama was black, Ta-Nehisi Coates just remembered that Chris Matthews was white.

Catch you in a bit.

Hayek vs Keynes: who won?

January 26, 2010 at 10:40 pm | Posted in Misc. | 8 Comments

The cause of Keynesianism suffered a damaging blow today. The reason: John Maynard Keynes.

Yeah, I know this rap battle between ‘Keynes’ and ‘Hayek’ is just a bit of fun & an entertaining way of introducing economics to the masses.

But c’mon people, battles are serious! In real rap battles, reputations get made or torn apart. People spend hours analysing a rapper’s technique; his one-liners; the viciousness of his disses; whether his opponent was able to hit back. More importantly, each battle has a winner and a loser, so I’ll let the serious folks debate over who has the better economic theory. For me, it’s all about who won the battle.

As in most things, context is everything. Going into this, Keynes was the Undisputed King of econorap. His theories saved the world from the biggest financial crisis of our time, and now that economies are making paper again, he’s earned his right to a victory lap. What’s more, he’s battling a man seen as responsible for fucking the whole game up in the first place. This should be a formality.



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He certainly wastes no time pointing out why he’s ‘the shit’. He’s a VIP in every club, the ladies hang on his every word and there are cocktails aplenty. By contrast, Hayek is yesterday’s man – ignored by all except for use as a punchline. Sensing that his counterpart is an irrelevance, Keynes doesn’t even give him the courtesy of a diss. He’s the only game in town.

Except this isn’t the same Keynes we knew & loved back in the day. He’s lost the hunger; the fire he used to breathe at the start of the crisis; the urgent hectoring for change. He treats the listener as if Keynesianism is a self-evident truth, and forgets that whilst he might be stackin’ that paper, many of his listeners will still be enduring gruelling times.

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This may have been the final straw. Dismayed by what he feels is economic gibberish and fed-up at being patronised by leftist hangers-on (this one’s probably even a feminist! And how many schools has she influenced?!), you can see Hayek plotting his response. Sure, his theories might not be the best looking and he no longer gets invites to Federal Reserve club nights, but he’s still got pride, dammit! With that humiliation, Freddie leafs through the rap bible and turns to its most devastating trick: turning an enemy’s strength into a liability.

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Is it possible, Hayek wonders, that Keynes’ playa lifestyle ain’t all what it seems? Doesn’t he enjoy his cocktails a little too much? Aren’t his hangers-on the same ones who were stroking Freddie’s ‘tache just a few years ago? By showing the listeners the darker side of his hedonistic lifestyle, he suggests that Johnny-boy might be an addict, and there’s nothing dope about a fiend. Now, economists rappers might be known for their ruthlessness, but even by their standards, this is some cold shit.

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Beyond that, Hayek just wants it more. He still has scores to settle and points to prove. He cares about the game too much to let it be left to some smooth-talking showman who’s getting drunk off his own hubris. This shows in the way Freddie attacks the beat, the vigour he puts into the performance, and the brutal way he attacks his opponent:

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Stood smart and stoic against a backdrop of a wretching Keynes, Hayek pulls off an against all odds triumph, proving perhaps that rappers are naturally libertarian. Perhaps Keynes should take up indie rock?

Once more on the ‘Visible Poor’

January 25, 2010 at 10:52 am | Posted in British Politics, Working Class Britain | 5 Comments

<This post is a much, much longer version of an older post on the Visible Poor, which is here. It first appeared on linksUK, which is hosting a week-long discussion about the portrayal of poverty in the media. It’s worth checking out.>

Image via abrinsky (Creative Commons)

At 12pm on the West Orchards Terrace, Coventry sits down to eat. Where Alan Bennett might’ve found pleasure watching the manners and habits of people in hotel lobbies, I’ve always found mine in the more modest surrounds of the shopping centre food court. I like watching people negotiate the different choices on offer & mulling over where to sit; the things they do while they’re eating and the ways they interact with each other.

Just in front of me, there’s a dad reading a football magazine to his young son, who, awestruck and imaging, quietly slips chips between his lips. A woman from the Debenhams make-up counter hurriedly stuffs a wrap into her mouth whilst tapping frantically on her phone. Two elderly women tuck into their ‘giant’ Yorkshire puddings, pausing occasionally to coo over a baby in a high chair. An adolescent couple, presumably on their first date, eat together in silence; cautious not to do or say anything which could cause embarrassment.

There are pizzas and pasties, cappucinos and fried chicken, toasted teacakes & ciabattas. Yet all this difference is nothing compared to the range of people you’ll find. There are smart suits and shell suits, hoodies and cardigans, short skirts, jeans, leather jackets and niqabs, and they all ventured up the escalators for coffee or food, or just to have five minutes off their feet. This is why I’ve never understood people who dismiss shopping centres as cathedrals for commerce; they can be some of the most human places on the planet.

What a lot of socialists don’t often mention is that insofar as capitalism functions – falteringly, and with innumerable inequities – it does so because the people make it function. This isn’t just because of coercion, necessity or false consciousness, but because humans have a remarkable capacity to bend the rigid, humdrum formalities of working life into something more humane.

A security guard goes over to talk to the girl who’s getting bored at her unpopular hotdog stand. Two cleaners share a joke by one of the bins. In the queue for coffee, the harassed barista still found time for banter with one of her regulars. We all find ways to endure the long shift, adapt to the tedious routine, amend the unfathomable rules: we have in-jokes, fag breaks, staff competitions and nights out. Work disciplines us, yes, but we’re the ones who civilise work, and the skills we develop help us to be better employees and better members of society.

The root cause of our gravest social problems is not big government, the welfare state, or even broken families. It is lack of work. When unemployment becomes long term, even generational, many of the values and behaviours which work develops begins to disappear. In its place are anti-social behaviours which can cause misery to otherwise upstanding working class communities. Worse still, these behaviours are then learned by their children, creating a cycle of state dependency, social exclusion, violence and abuse.

If there is a ‘social recession’, it is limited to members of a small, troubled, self-perpetuating group, which is neither reflective of the communities they blight nor the fault of one political party. It is a problem which has existed for generations and will probably persist generations from now: the only thing left to argue about is whether it’s gotten better or worse, and whether it can be solved.

But despite being unrepresentative of either the poor or the wider working class, cases such as the Edlington attacks are often the only time the media takes the time to report on poverty & deprivation. Prior to news of this attack, who can honestly say they had even heard of this small South Yorkshire town, let alone understood its character and problems? Prior to the kidnap of Shannon Matthews, who can honestly claim to have known where Dewsbury Moor was, or the demographics of the people living there? My own knowledge of Haringey is limited to the appalling crimes which happened there; I know nothing of the area or its people.

Because our view of these areas is restricted to its most infrequent but appalling crimes, we rarely take the time to examine the more generic, structural problems which exist. What’s the quality of the housing? How might the schools be improved? Do social workers have enough time to do justice to their clients? Where offending behaviour occurs, are there opportunities for community sentencing? Is there enough Early Intervention for parents who’re at risk? When your first introduction to a place makes you recoil in horror, these questions are rarely asked, and answers rarely sought.

The challenge, then, for people who campaign against poverty & inequality, is to humanise the problem; to demonstrate the struggles and champion the success stories which occur in these communities and – above all – give its residents a voice. Without that, we’ll just have to make do with a succession of bleak headlines which neither gives a true reflection of the communities in which they occurred, nor truly grapples with the causes.

One reason we think society is broken because parts of it remain invisible. That’s something we can – and must – seek to change.

In praise of Alan Duncan

January 24, 2010 at 11:13 am | Posted in Conservative Party, Crime | 7 Comments

I have no idea yet whether Alan Duncan is an asset or a liability to the cause of penal reform, but he certainly appears to be an ally, and is the author of two cracking soundbites:

Ms Crook wrote: ‘Alan Duncan said that the slogan “prison works” was repulsively simplistic. Anyone in politics should work to improve society and there was no more useful target than offenders.’


Ms Crook added: ‘He said, “Lock ’em up is Key Stage 1 politics.”’ Key Stage 1 is the first part of the primary-school curriculum studied by children as young as five.

To which the Mail has helpfully editorialised:

Suggesting that an old-style tough Tory approach to crime is worthy of a five-year-old will infuriate the party’s grassroots activists.

Well, if they’re going to act like five-year-olds…

Regardless of the bruised feelings the ‘lock ’em up’ brigade will have today, Duncan is entirely correct. What’s more, it is reassuring to see that there are figures inside the Tory hierarchy who are prepared to defend their policy on prisons from the punative populism apparently favoured by David Cameron’s inner circle.

The spat within the front bench over the ‘prison ships’ proposal gives further evidence of something I’ve mentioned before. For quite some time now, it’s been apparent that there exists a real tension & contradiction in Tory justice policy, and one which will need to be resolved if the party takes power.

On the one hand there is the thoughtless, tabloid-fawning opportunism practiced by the likes of Chris Grayling. Under this ‘Key Stage 1 politics’, there is no sentence too punative, no cure but incarceration, and the only area where the conservatives would envisage more state spending is in the building of more prisons.

These are contradicted by a policy for prison reform which is, by and large, excellent. Their ‘Prisons with a Purpose’ paper, influenced heavily by outside experts and the fine work done by the Centre for Social Justice, is a thoughtful, well-informed engagement with the problem which rightly concludes that the purpose of the prison system should be reformation rather than revenge.

These conflicting instincts in Tory policy cannot coexist with each other in government because being progressive on prison reform will require restraint on sentencing which the would-be Home Secretary seems incapable of practicing. Even if he did, he would have to restrain not just his own instincts, but the reflexive vengefulness of the Tory tabloids and grassroots.

Sadly, I don’t hold out much hope that this conflict will be settled on the side of reform, but I may always be proved wrong. Until I am, Alan Duncan deserves praise for standing on the right side of an unpopular and perpetually losing battle.

FAO Press TV

January 21, 2010 at 10:08 pm | Posted in Idiot Hall of Fame | 1 Comment

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Dear Press TV,

Either develop some semblance of morality & integrity or just shut the fuck up.


The Bleeding Heart Show

Goldsmith forgets to think

January 21, 2010 at 9:44 pm | Posted in Conservative Party, Crime | Leave a comment

If you thought the Tories’ ‘broken society’ meme was bit dystopic, this will really have you reaching for the bottle. According to Zac Goldsmith, Conservative candidate for Richmond Park and everyone’s favourite uber-green non-dom, we’re no longer living in a civilised country. Can’t wait to see that on his election posters.

In a post which implicitly supports euthanasia, Goldsmith contrasts the seemingly lenient sentence given to a convicted paedophile with a seemingly harsh sentence for a woman who ended the life of her beloved but brain damaged son.

The problem, you see, is those pesky “sanctimonious liberal commentators” who “will argue that the mark of a civilised society is its willingness to apply justice in the face of public opinion. For them, this mother is a law-breaker, just like Sweeney, and she should be punished as such.

Now, if I was going to write about how two court cases reveal what an uncivilised country we are, I’d probably think twice before accusing anyone else of sanctimony. I think I’d also take the time to ponder what a liberal commentator’s reaction to these two stories would actually be.

You see, liberals are found of liberalising things, and last time I checked, the criminal justice system hasn’t seen all that much liberalising in the past few decades. Indeed, there are quite a few ‘sanctimonious liberals’ who would go so far as to say that there shouldn’t be a custodial sentence for mercy killings, providing certain conditions are met. So under a more liberal system, the mercy killing escapes jail and the paedophile is still banged up. Am I missing something here, or is that not exactly what Zac Goldsmith is angling for?!

Seriously, I can understand why some folks have a reflexive urge to bash their opponents at any opportunity; it’s just a shame that this one couldn’t engage his brain before doing so.

Better teachers

January 18, 2010 at 9:57 pm | Posted in Education | 14 Comments

As it’s one of those issues which makes trainee teachers tremble with trepidation, today we were treated to a whole day of seminars on the topic of behaviour management. Among the choices on offer, there was guidance on how to practice ‘assertive discipline’, how teachers could get involved in the ‘alternative curriculum’ and what the challenges are for children in care or foster homes. These seminars were incredibly valuable; delivered by experienced practitioners who knew what does and does not work in a classroom. At the end of it, troubled minds were eased, new ideas were hatched and enthusiasm for teaching was energised. Trouble is, everyone I spoke to felt like those seminars could’ve lasted for a week.

The truth about a PGCE course is that a year is insufficient time to train us into the teachers we’d like to be, nevermind what the schools or the state would like us to be. Sure, those who returned after Christmas are confident they can teach and are hungry to get back to it, but it’s simply not possible for us to smooth out all the rough edges, the minor flaws and missed opportunities in our teaching. The profession is simply so broad, and the requirements of trainees so numerous that there will inevitably be important areas which we never get chance to explore.

This matters because once you do qualify as a teacher, your opportunities for professional development are limited. There may be some all-day training sessions you can attend and there might be some INSET days which help departments reflect on their practice, but you don’t have the time to really dwell on your practice with peers and consider how you can make youself better. Indeed, the best option you’ve got is to return to university for further study, but if you can’t afford the fees, you’re forced to decline an opportunity which could enrich both you and your pupils.

Such is the strength of the hopes and fears we have for our children’s future, education is always one of the top issues each election year. Unfortunately, this leads political parties to become obsessive about monitoring teaching standards: the National Curriculum; SATS; Ofsted; league tables; Every Child Matters and Assessment for Learning were all intended to raise standards across the system, and yet each election finds all parties agreeing that these are insufficient metrics, and it’s time to add more.

For the Conservatives, we need to restrict the pool of applicants to one which is ‘brazenly elitist’, in the hope that by only recruiting the very best graduates, you’ll recruit only the very best teachers. There are two major problems with this. First, we still have a teacher shortage, as evidenced by the fact that there are some substantial rewards for people training to teach subjects like science and maths. Second, quite apart from the fact that there are scores of people with mediocre qualifications who are exceptional teachers, there’s no guarantee that someone who graduated from Oxbridge with a first in Mathematics is going to possess the people skills needed to succeed in a classroom. It’s quite possible that the Tories’ plans would not only lead to fewer teachers, but fewer good teachers as well.

It seems to me that the current obsession with raising teaching standards is reaching a policy cul-de-sac, so instead of reaching for poorly-thought-out, media-friendly soundbytes, how about we just accept that a year is insufficient for training us into brilliant teachers, and that we should either double the length of a PGCE or provide time for us to embark on the kind of professional development many of us would love to do?

Put another way, “won’t somebody please think of the children?!”

Fighting conspiracy theories – or giving them credence?

January 16, 2010 at 12:00 pm | Posted in Misc., U.S. Politics | 15 Comments

Memo to academics: if you ever want to go into politics, publish nothing. Don’t write a single word which can be sourced back to you, and certainly nothing as provocative as Cass Sunstein has had a habit of being. Libertarians have discovered this article he wrote back in ’08 on the topic of conspiracy theories. They are none too happy.

On page 14 of Sunstein’s January 2008 white paper entitled “Conspiracy Theories,” the man who is now Obama’s head of information technology in the White House proposed that each of the following measures “will have a place under imaginable conditions” according to the strategy detailed in the essay.

1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing.

2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories.

That’s right, Obama’s information czar wants to tax or ban outright, as in make illegal, political opinions that the government doesn’t approve of. To where would this be extended? A tax or a shut down order on newspapers that print stories critical of our illustrious leaders?

I feel this is a little unfair to Sunstein, or at least locates the problems with his paper in the wrong place. From my reading of it, Sunstein actually dismisses the notion of either banning conspiracy theories or taxing those individuals/groups which hold them (since both, of course, are unworkable and abhorrent propositions).

His preferred method for dealing with these nutters is what he calls “cognitive infiltration”, which he describes as “weakening or even breaking up the ideological and epistemological complexes that constitute these networks and groups.” If I’ve read him correctly, this basically means trolling internet message boards, and is a much tamer proposal than those he’s (erroneously, in my book) being criticised for.

But whose message boards to troll? The problem with Sunstein’s piece is that it’s ridiculously broad: there are conspiracy theories about the Kennedys; the CIA being responsible for heroin use in black neighbourhoods; the rulers of the world being secret lizards and Barack Obama being the antichrist/muslim/fascist/socialist.

Does a state really target all of these groups? Since Sunstein is so inspecific, it’s understandable that civil libertarians are up in arms about it. For me, I wouldn’t have ethical objections to this being practiced, providing it was targeted solely at undermining or disrupting radical and violent Islamist groups – or any domestic group which incites violence. In fact, I suspect that such a method is being practiced at Langely as we speak.

The question here is trust, and how a state can retain the trust of its citizens. Sunstein argues that even by being transparent and fulfilling Freedom of Information requests which debunk certain theories, you still won’t convince its ardent believers. This much is obvious; in addition to satisfying the conspirators’ fringe politics and/or their feeling of powerlessness, conspiracy theories are also sustained by the social interaction between people who believe them.

But whilst transparency can’t kill a good fairy tale, it can limit its scope and power. It seems to me that the only truly ethical & effective way of regulating conspiacy theories is by releasing as much factual information as possible and then allowing the consumers to do what they like with it. This won’t kill the conspiracy theory, of course, but it will undermine the argument that the state has ‘something to hide’, which can be a powerful recruiting tool. As I wrote in a slightly different context:

There are many different explanations for why conspiracy theories form and how they spread, but I think the most important cultural/political aspect is how they’re often reactions from peoples or communities who feel distanced from & distrustful of the establishment. If you reduced that amount of alienation, you’d probably reduce the number and the power of these strange alternate histories. In the end, if you feel so powerless, the government must seem a hell of a lot more powerful than it actually is.

I think this is why many conspiracy theories have a libertarian component to them, and demonstrates why government action to regulate them would’ve been self-defeating. If you want to use the state to reduce the amount of make-believe on the fringes of the public sphere, you’re only going to reinforce those who believe the state has the power to do a bunch of other shady, manipulative things. By all means, let’s monitor & disrupt those who threaten the safety of others, but by doing anything other than that, you’re just shooting yourself in the foot.

Help Haiti

January 13, 2010 at 1:07 pm | Posted in International | Leave a comment

cross-posted from Left Outside:

A huge 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti last night. This is one of the worst crises to crisis ridden Haiti.

The extent of the devastation is still unclear but it is likely thousands have died and many many more are trapped in the rubble. The early signs are not good, with communications down across the country Haiti’s large expatriate population are still unclear what has happened to their relatives and friends.

There is very little any of us can do but look on aghast but there are organisation which are helping.

  • Oxfam has long experience in Haiti, and they are rushing in teams from around the region to respond where they’re needed most. They already have a team in Port-au-Prince and their response will include providing clean water, shelter and sanitation. This is where my donation has been directed.
  • UNICEF have issued a statement that “Children are always the most vulnerable population in any natural disaster, and UNICEF is there for them.” UNICEF requests donations for relief for children in Haiti via their Haiti Earthquake Fund.
  • Medicins sand Frontieres are responding to the Earthquake in Haiti with their usual speed and efficiency and any donations would be of a great help.
  • Mercy Corps are also seeking donations so they can expand their aid efforts in Haiti.

More organisations seeking donations are available here. Please help in whatever way you can.

Lunchbox politics

January 12, 2010 at 10:18 pm | Posted in British Politics, Education, NHS | 2 Comments

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The process of producing a good lunchbox is one of trial and error; claim & counter-claim; constant negotiation between producer and customer. My brother and I weren’t easy customers to please. For a few years we were quite happy with Dairylea in our sandwiches, until we discovered that Dairylea was cheese, and ‘Mum, we don’t like cheese!‘ We went our separate ways after that: Jon took a shine to ham & tomato ketchup; I developed a thing for Bernard Matthews turkey slices, which she sprinkled with salt and sprayed with barbeque sauce.

But as soon as she’d solved the filling problem, then came an issue with the bread. Those thin slices of soft white bread which worked so well with Dairylea weren’t compatible with our various sauces, which leaked all over our fingers and (worse still) our clean white shirts. So she replaced it with those spongy, tasteless Warburton teacakes. Result.

But it was always the deserts which caused the most angst. Did we want Wagon Wheels or Chocolate Rolls? Jam Tarts or Fondant Fancies? Yoghurt or fromage frais? How do you keep yoghurt cool without resorting to an ice pack which’ll make your sandwich soggy? Had we been good enough to deserve a Tunnocks Marshmallow Teacake? And even if she did pack one, how could she make it so that the ruff n’ tumble of a rucksack didn’t get it squashed? Was there even any point putting a piece of fruit in there?

Were it not for love, my mother wouldn’t have bothered. Each tacky little Tupperware box we carried to school was an expression of devotion, and that she constantly evolved the menu to serve our fickle tastes was a sign that she wanted to send us to school with something from her to us.

Those who’re interested in reforming the British diet often make the mistake of talking about food as nothing but a clump of calories & carbohydrates, sodiums and saturates. Using the vast breadth of information about how our bodies work and what’s in the food we eat, they’ll explain the benefits of eating A, or why B should only be eaten only in moderation. From this information, they expect us to make well informed, healthy, rational choices.

Except that few of us look at food in such narrowly functional terms. Food can also be deeply personal – teeming with memory and emotion. I knew that black forest gateau was my favourite desert the moment I found out that it was grandad’s favourite desert. It’s also a fiercely stubborn habit: 15 years later, I still eat the crusts off my turkey sandwich first; Jon’s still making himself ham & ketchup; we still spoil ourselves with a nice, gooey marshmallow teacake.

My worry about the healthy eating lobby is that when they see that we’re not making the same self-evidently healthy, rational choices as they recommend, they feel the need to try a little harder, maybe see if a bit of state coercion will do the trick. That’s probably the surest way of getting people’s backs up and encouraging them to switch off entirely.

Some are going to reject all this nutritional advice in its entirety. Others will follow it obsessively. But I’m reasonably confident that most of us try, where possible, to incorporate it into our lives, so long as we possess the cultural & financial capital to do so, and it doesn’t detract from the pleasure of eating. But it seems to me that all these people can do without eliciting angry, defiant responses, is just put the information out there and let the rest of us decide what to do with it. Parents, in particular, have quite enough on their plates.

Picture by amanky (Creative Commons)

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