Monday, November 20, 2006

Everything You Learnt About Schools: The Sequel

Loathe as I am to get bogged down on specific subjects, the breadth of responses to last Thursday’s piece on grammar schools merited a full response, not least because an uncharitable mind might think that some of the respondents hadn’t read it. So let’s start again by restating the fundamental conclusion I put at the top of the last piece;

What makes you think that that is the result of selection by ability in and of itself?

Take for example the accusation that selection by ability closes off opportunities to children who don’t get into the “top” school. Now it’s true that if children have to stay in the same school for five years on the basis of the selection, those who do well may be held back by what they are able to achieve in the particular environment selected. But isn’t that a problem with it being five years? In reality, we do need to look at the split of years between different schools; the current 3/4/5/2 split should at least be 3/4/4/3 or maybe even 3/4/3/4. In that way, selection can be at 11 and 14/15, giving everyone two bites at the cherry.

Then again, the lack of logical diagnosis is not the real problem. In terms of grammar schools, there remains this ingrained concept that it is about “good” and “bad” schools, much of which relates to the idea that there are somehow vast swathes of children who aren’t particularly intelligent at 11 but by 18 will be off to Oxbridge to read biochemistry or nuclear physics. If someone would like to provide me with statistics showing that these people do exist, I’d be happy to publish them, but my suspicion is that they are a very, very small but vocal group.

Rather than expend enormous time and money trying to prevent a relatively rare occurrence, we should honestly state what education is there to achieve. I for one believe that education must be designed to maximise the potential of every child by providing tailored resources and teaching within an integrated framework that does not discriminate between academic and vocational training. You might be able to provide that within the comprehensive system, but it will be vastly more expensive to do so.

Above all, in education it is far too easy to be sentimental about things; rather than assuming that every child is born with the divine right to go to Oxbridge, let’s rise above the emotional attachment and actually consider what education should be achieving and how it can best be arranged to accomplish those goals.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Everything You Learnt About Schools Is Wrong

Are grammar schools liberal?

I ask because it rather bizarrely came up on Question Time when Ming was on and it prompted him into one of his leftier rants about social divisiveness and so forth. (I also ask because I enjoy sticking grenades under bits of policy we hold as sacrosanct, but that’s just my own particular perversity…)

The principal argument against grammar schools has remained unchanged for quite a while now; that by forcible dividing pupils at age 11, grammar schools established a fundamental divide between those who passed and those who failed, and that these attitudes dogged those who failed throughout life. Which is all very fine and splendid, but then it does raise another question;

In what way was any of that the fault of the grammar schools?

It should always be noted that the original specification of the 1944 Education Act had three tiers rather than two. The catastrophic nature of the failure to adequately fund the Technical Schools as an alternative to the Secondary Moderns cannot be overstated. In a three-tier system, your position in the grand scheme of things can be considered to have some connection to your ability; in a two-tier system, your position is the result of some arbitrary line in the sand that will never be acceptable to people, and with very good reason.

So let’s rephrase the question; is selection by ability liberal?

Now that is a relevant question, since what we are being offered at the moment is the very opposite, i.e. selection by anything but ability. First there were the specialist schools, designed to allow some selection by aptitude. Now let’s be very clear, specialist school status is bullshit; I’ve known this ever since Katharine Lady Berkeley school (taught French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian and Chinese) was refused Language College status in the same year my own school (taught French and German but was a grammar and a Beacon school) was granted that status. The net result is that specialist school status exists not to improve bad schools but to improve good ones.

Then Blair and co. come marching in with their big size nines and load on City Academies, Trust Schools and now Faith Schools. Again, let’s not beat around the bush; City Academies exist to give a mechanism whereby government can foist PFI rebuilding on any school that’s even so much as mediocre, to which I refer you to my previous comments about rail privatisation and how making the trains look shiny never solved the fundamental issue. Trust Schools exist to allow the schools that were good in the first place to ensure that status by letting them cherry-pick, and since in order to placate Prescott that cannot be by academic selection it will almost certainly be on the basis of teachers liking the look of people or liking the look of where they live. And as for faith schools, well, let’s just say, anyone stupid enough to come up with that idea deserves everything they get…

Thankfully, that whole system is so legally unworkable that it will collapse around the government’s ears. I can even tell you exactly where and how; it’ll be somewhere in East Lancashire or West Yorkshire, when a Muslim family with a son with a gift for cricket discover that their local Specialist Sports College is the local Roman Catholic High School. The cricket angle will get them pro bono legal work from some crusty old barrister who just happens to be an MCC member and the whole edifice will end up in the European Court of Human Rights.

In a way, we as a party have the solution already, in that we support full implementation of the Tomlinson Report. And yet Tomlinson remains an incomplete article in that it fails to consider the downstream implications of its own suggestions; ultimately, Tomlinson breaks the final division in education, that between academic and vocational subjects. The importance of that cannot be understated, not least when you consider it in reference to Bernard Woolley;

“Who wanted comprehensive education? Parents? Pupils? No, the National Union of Teachers wanted it.”

My point is, if there ceases to be a stigma around vocational subjects, then not only can pupils be allowed to specialise but teachers can be too. Once that happens, does it make any sense to coop them up in the same building as the Oxbridge candidates?

And yet, the best argument I can give against the idea that grammar schools are inherently socially divisive is my own. As I said, I went to Sir Thomas Rich’s School, one of the remaining state grammar schools. And yes, it was quite middle class as things go, but it was middle class in the 80’s way, middle class through people who had worked their way up not banked on the fortunes of others. In sixth form, a good proportion of people had done GCSE’s at comprehensives (including the worst of the lot, one so bad it’s now become a faith-based City Academy) but they’d met the standard and moved up.

But here’s the clincher; many of the best and the brightest were from Gloucester’s Asian community. Had I gone to one of my local comprehensives, I’d have had little to do with any of them, because I lived in the suburbs and they didn’t and catchment areas exist. But my school (which, by the way, had a strong moral ethos, a strong Christian ethos at that, but never felt the need to be badged by it) didn’t care if they were black, white, asian or anything; they only cared that they were talented. A world of faith schools, trust schools and city academies will ghettoise everybody; a system that was allowed to be truly meritocratic would not.

And there’s the rub; a grammar school system, with a full system of tiers, is ultimately the only truly meritocratic system going. It’s the only system that allows people to concentrate on and improve their talents in the right way for them, individually. Try and tell me that that’s not liberal? I shake my head, I really do…

Monday, November 13, 2006

Are We Really All That Bad?

As I trekked round most of the North of England today (specifically, York - Harrogate - Leeds - Settle - Carlisle - Preston - Manchester) a question dogged me; what does the party really think of LDYS policy?

I ask because it has now become something of a professional concern; as an LDYS Executive Member I've taken on a portfolio loosely entitled "Policy and Education" concerned with improving policy generation and management within LDYS and regaining some of our influence on Federal Party policy. But equally, as someone who has never attended Federal Party Conference (though only because it's always the same week as Manchester Freshers Fair and it's now become something of a protest for me) I can't really gauge the true feelings of the party at large.

Obviously I know we've something of a reputation for radicalism (I have after all at least read the pornography motion so that was ever so slightly obvious!) But is the dismay at our supposed irresponsibility real, or do people secretly take Paddy Ashdown's view that what LDYS thinks today will be mainstream in the party in five years?

In fairness my interest is only really academic; I certainly have no instinct to reel our radicalism in and I would hope that a democratic party would at least take it on the chin as an inevitable consequence of our nature. Still, it would be good to know exactly how mad people are at us before stepping in with me big size 12's...

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Ftr's Dim, The Ftr's Purple...

And no, I’m not belatedly referring to Nigel Farage and the UKIP Conference (although I would like to belatedly thank Nigel personally for placing into the public domain proof of what we as Liberal Democrats already knew, that the hallowed “centre ground” means authoritarian, racist pandering to the Murdoch/Desmond agenda)

No, I refer instead to one of the great threats to the environmental aspect of English transport policy, ftr. For those lucky enough not yet to have encountered it, ftr (pron. f’ter, text speak for future) is the supposed next step for bus travel being piloted in York by First Group. (And yes, I am aware that York is Lib Dem run and that York Lib Dem councillors are on Lib Dem Blogs, but there comes a point where the level of the cock up is so great that party loyalty must take a back seat…)

Specifically, ftr is a standard Volvo bendy bus with an “improved” (read: slightly curvier than normal with an unnecessary rear spoiler and wheel covers) body shell and “futuristic” (read: grim and impractical) interior fixtures. It also has the following “features”;

  • Greater capacity (means: one more seat than the bus it is based on)
  • Fast automatic ticketing (means: automatic ticket machines on the bus that are unreliable and difficult for anyone with even mild mobility restrictions and don’t give change in order to make it pretty much impossible to use the bus unless you’ve bought a season ticket, hence more money flowing to the bus company)
  • Convenient payment options (means: tickets by mobile sounds so cool it doesn’t matter that it’ll never work while we jack up the prices)
  • New dedicated route (means: uses the same old route but with priority traffic lights that you won’t notice because the effect is statistically insignificant to anything but the most expert observer, and the same raised kerbs that only every council in the country has been installing for the last five years)

The real problem, however, is the motivation for it all. York got the pilot scheme because it is one of those places that could never use light rail (in York’s case, because of the historic centre and city walls). Then First Group show off their lovely computer-generated impressions of ftrs whizzing down priority bus lanes and the politicians squint and tilt their head and imagine it looking a little bit like a tram, and the rest is history…

Which is fine, and only a terrible waste of money in places like York. But First’s motivation is not York, it’s Leeds, it’s Bristol, it’s Swansea, it’s all the places that had light rail plans all ready to go until HMG decided to abandon light rail without telling anyone. If First can convince those places that guided busways, priority traffic lights and silly plastic body shells are as good as trams, it could kill light rail in England and ensure that the bus companies maintain their excellent record of increasing profits while reducing passenger numbers.

The environmental cost of such a decision would be despicable. With domestic energy, decentralisation is justifiable because recycling of exhaust heat increases the efficiency of the process. In transport, however, electric trams using overhead power lines supplied by the grid will always beat the efficiency of diesel engines venting that heat to the air. That the government are acting so cravenly and irresponsibly is disappointing but not exactly unexpected; that Lib Dem councillors locally are helping them do so is just embarrassing.

(Incidentally, one final note to any Labour or Conservative campaigner who thinks this entry is an excuse to have a go at York Lib Dems; if you have the unbrazen temerity to even imply that you wouldn’t have approved ftr yourselves, you’re big, fat, stinking, lying liars!)

Friday, November 03, 2006

LDYS: Winning How?

Of course, if I'm going to sit here all week being critical of things going on within LDYS, at some point you'll have every right to ask me what I'd do about it. And to be honest, I've spent all week struggling with it, until just now I realised that actually I have a get-out clause (but more of that anon...)

Meanwhile, I think it's only fair that I tell you what I disagree with;

  • We must not drop the word "Democrat" from our name. This is something that the whole party needs to be made aware of; LDYS is considering changing its name (which is fair enough, LDYS isn't exactly memorable) and there is a strong body of opinion in favour of only using "Liberal" as a descriptor. Even without the PPERA problems that might arise from such a change, it is fundamental that we not seek to deny our status as the youth wing of a political party. The moment we cease to have pride in the party we seek to represent, we cease to have any right to do anything.,
  • We must not allow the accountability situation to get worse. LDYS Conference has its problems, true. And yes, the idea of having one annual Convention with a greater focus on workshops and blue-sky thinking is good and should be pursued. But we must not allow our desire to get a convention in place to ride roughshod over the need to have an accountable executive.
  • We must not have a Sabbatical Chair. LDYS has suffered in recent years from only having one full-time staff member, but the problem has been a lack of skills and a lack of time to apply them, not a lack of political leadership. Yes, we need a second staff member, but that person should be a stable, professional presence with the skills we need to do the things we need to do.
But what, you may well ask, of my get-out clause? Well, put simply, we must have an open process. LDYS has an enormous range of stakeholders; parliamentarians, local parties, university branches, youth branches, ordinary members... and so far the efforts to engage them properly have been negligible Until we're getting that bit right, I'm not going to feel guilty sniping from the sidelines.

Either way, the lesson to those on the outside is clear; if you want a strong youth wing, if you want to take advantage of the clear advantage Lib Dems have among young voters, don't wait for it to be delivered on a plate. Get informed, get involved, and help us get it sorted.