Thursday, November 18, 2010

Layer 380 . . . Education, Obama, the Coalition, and Royal Wedding Madness

Every single national newspaper had on its front page today a huge photograph of William and Kate. They were obviously expecting sales to go nuts, and they probably did.


I'm still thinking about the section of the Ken Robinson video (mentioned in the last blog) where he talks about the decline in children's curiosity and willingness to ask questions as they move through 10 years of schooling.

I have a video somewhere in which Melvyn Bragg interviews the wonderful Gore Vidal, and Gore says something very similar about what schools and our education system do to children's curiosity. I'm now going to find the video and quote from it here.


Fiona Millar wrote this column about Katharine Birbalsingh and Tory education policies in Education Guardian:

Our schools do not need foreign solutions

Alarm about our state schools is largely unfounded, argues Fiona Millar, and looking abroad for solutions is a mistake

I have been in two minds over whether to write about Katharine Birbalsingh, the south London deputy head whose scathing attack on state schools was lapped up at the Tory party conference. Over my several decades as a journalist, I have seen several Katharine Birbalsinghs come and go. They emerge from nowhere; catch the media's attention, often because of the way they look. Would she have made the same impact if she had been white and middle aged?

Around 1% of what they say is true; the rest is usually eye-catching propaganda that plays into the prejudices of the audience. In my experience these characters usually inhale too much of their own publicity, get over-promoted and vanish as quickly as they appeared.

Birbalsingh is only one of the players Michael Gove has hired to bolster his flagging flagship policies. Arne Duncan, Obama's education secretary and Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, have also been recruited for more rhetoric about broken systems and intransigent teachers.

The selective use of overseas educationalists as witnesses is particularly hazardous.

It is barely a year since the Swedes performed this role, but they have been quietly dropped now. Why? Because too many other people popped up to testify that their system was not working. Now the Swedes have introduced a new law that brings free schools under the same regulatory framework as local municipal schools. Don't expect to hear much more about them in a hurry.

Similar doubts are now seeping out about US charter schools. The Credo study from Stanford University suggests that less than a fifth of charter schools outperform US public (state) schools, most are about the same and two-fifths are worse, often because they are incompetently run. Some are mired in financial scandals.

The most devastating critique of US school reforms comes from another former education minister, Diane Ravitch, an early charter devotee who now writes books and articles and tours the US to warn against the dangers of faddish piecemeal reforms that aren't "scalable". Ravitch is now in favour of public education and high-quality teaching rather than privatisation.

It is a shame she didn't see the light earlier, but there is still time for us. Every day in this country, hundreds of thousands of children go to schools that are generally orderly and disciplined, they make progress and pass so many exams that we now can't afford to send them all to university. The cogs that keep that system working are hard-working teachers and heads who bear no resemblance to the caricatures in the repertoires of any of Michael Gove's celebrity guests.

There are schools, often in challenging urban areas, without the strong leadership required to make a difference and they need to be confronted. But they do not mean that an "excuses culture" is rife, that our system is an international disgrace or that we need to absorb, wholesale, policies that may be only partially successful in their home countries, however captivating or charismatic their advocates may be.


In the London Review of Books this week there's an excellent essay called The Matter With Obama. Well worth a read.


There's also an essay on the coalition's economic and social policies:

Nothing to do with the economy
Ross McKibbin

‘Business now has certainty,’ the chancellor said at the end of his statement on the Comprehensive Spending Review; but that is the one thing business doesn’t have.

Much of the government’s budget strategy is dependent on consequences which might be favourable, on premises which are almost certainly wrong, on sheer fantasy, and on that will-o’-the-wisp, ‘confidence’.

 It is pretty clear that those on benefits of whatever kind will suffer, however the cuts are interpreted. Anyone disabled, or partly disabled and on employment support, or dependent on housing benefit, or in need of social housing, or reliant on local authority care – indeed anyone on a low income – will lose.

 And women will lose more than men. They are more likely to be made redundant by local government and the cuts in child tax credit are more likely to keep them out of work.

As for the rich, there has been no serious attempt to drag any of them into the circle of suffering – the bankers least of all. Their good fortune is the inevitable result of the decision to fund the deficit primarily from cuts in expenditure rather than from taxation, and the belief, in the face of all recent evidence, that the future of the economy depends on them.

In so far as the spending proposals are ‘fair’ and the ‘rich’ are affected, this is largely due to the efforts of the previous government, whose 50 per cent tax on incomes of over £150,000 a year the coalition had no option but to accept. That the poor do comparatively badly and the rich do comparatively well is not a surprise. Budget cuts that fall disproportionately on welfare programmes must be unfair.

I doubt that the cuts have very much to do with the economy: if they did they would have been more plausible and less risky. It is very unlikely that Osborne, if asked, could give any economic rationale for them. Nor could the Conservative MPs who cheered and waved their order papers when he had finished telling them that everything was going to be made significantly worse. The importance of the cuts is not economic but political and ideological.
First, they restore an apparently coherent, specifically Conservative and politically useful identity to the Conservative Party, distinguishing it from Labour. For the last 20 years or so the Tories have not had such an identity . . . But the ‘deficit’ gave them an opportunity; and the bigger the cuts the bigger the opportunity.

The crisis allowed the Conservatives to transform a crisis of the banks into a crisis of the welfare state. This, they hope, will enable them to restructure government and ‘shrink’ the state and its welfare systems once and for all, something they have been trying to do for the last 30 years.

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