Monthly Archives: December 2009

How to frame the ‘Class Debate’: ‘Prejudice’ not ‘Envy’

One of the features of an indulgent Christmas nowadays, after the wine and pud, is to log on to the social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Linked-in, etc) and read the thoughts and wishes of contacts both close and tenuous.  One caught my eye this year – it was written by someone I know to be bright and rational, it read:

“MR X is enjoying the Kings College Choir this Christmas. But, can they sing without looking so privileged next year please”

It struck me as such an odd sentiment at this time of goodwill.  It betrays a snapshot into a mind of class prejudice.  Make no mistake class prejudice – and I carefully use the word ‘prejudice’ rather than ‘envy’ – clearly does still exist in the UK, just as racism and homophobia exist. Like other prejudices Class has political mileage that can be exploited.  Whatever the mock protestations from Cabinet Ministers about a clean fight I expect Labour to play the class card in the coming election because, frankly, it works.  The best Tory response to it is rise above it, show how the party has changed and highlight any hypocrisy from the champagne socialist crowd.  The worst response is wheeling on some landed gentry and claiming this is about  ‘the politics of envy’ – the second the class debate is framed with the word ‘envy’ the subconscious message sent is ‘we think we are better than you and you’re just jealous’.  Voters, rightly, see that as smug and aloof.  It is a trap that traditional Conservatives fall into again and again.

With that thought, I think I’ll sign off for 2009 – but I’ll leave with one reflection:  I hope that this time next year there are many more kids looking more privileged than they are now…..  Peace, goodwill and happy new year.

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Filed under Center right, Class, Politics, UK

The Aptitude Myth: Why Reform are wrong with their 14-16 GCSE & Schools Thinking

I’m a guarded fan of the think tank ‘Reform’.   They’re of a centre right-ish bent and their mission is to apply their philosophy to radical constructive reform of public services.  In the main I consider myself ‘on their side’.   Therefore, it was disappointing when I came across this report containing their latest thinking on education.  To save you reading the gist is that every pupil in the UK should have to sit ‘5 rigorous academic GCSEs’.  Anything else apparently sells students short.  They charge opponents who say not everyone is academically minded as party to what they call ‘the capability myth’.  They’re convinced if taught properly everyone has it within themselves to pass 5 ‘academic’ GCSEs and that is what the nation should aspire too.

The sound-bite from the piece is that “capability myth” bit.  It is quite a cutting phrase to throw back at anyone who disagrees with them – as if the opponent is party to a grand conspiracy to hold kids back.  I’m sure they were chuffed to bits when they coined it because it sounds so withering. But I don’t buy it.

Let me throw a phrase back at them – they are peddling the ‘aptitude myth’.  Their approach denies that some people flourish outside an academic environment and are crushed within one.  They condemn these people to a childhood of being convinced they’re ‘thick’ and doomed to fail in society.  They will drive these kids to truancy and the one chance to get these kids a good outcome (the school years) is wasted.

The interesting thing is that the research and observations they make in the report are bang on the money.  It is just the conclusions they then draw that are wide of the mark.  It is certainly true that the old benchmark target of 5 GCSE’s in any subject encouraged schools to put kids into lessons that were less academic.  Vocational qualifications with an equivalence of 5 GCSEs for the purpose of targets proliferated.   As Chair of Governors of a School condemned with the National Challenge label this is something I witnessed firsthand and arguably condoned.  In just two years we lifted the students getting 5 GCSE’s (or equivalent) from 18% to 64%.  Some of this improvement was down to better discipline in the school and some to better teaching.  Some of this improvement was also down to putting kids into classes aligned with their aptitude and ambition.  It is predictable and cheap to represent this as ‘dumbing down’.  These kids are not kids who wanted to go to University.  Now, we could have a whole separate debate on if the fact they don’t aspire to go to uni in itself is a failure –  however, they at least now have qualifications that will get them into further education where their vocational experience serves them well.  They are less likely to end up as the NEET type that Labour obsesses about (youngsters not in education, employment or training) than they would have been.

The year we made this progress the school league table benchmark was changed.  It became 5 GCSEs including both English and Maths.  To my mind, even though the change meant that ‘my’ school didn’t shoot up the tables as we would have, the new benchmark is spot on.  Maths and English are core building block skills regardless of what you wish to do, and the level set for a C grade at GCSE is the level you would like to think every adult could or should attain.  The same ‘core building block’ argument cannot be said of history, geography or even the sciences that presumably Reform are lumping in the ‘academically rigorous GCSE category.  These subjects are undoubtedly ‘nice-to-have’, possibly even ‘great-to-have’ but they are not ‘must-have’.

If we can get kids out of secondary school with 5 GCSEs including English and maths we WILL have genuinely improved life chances and outcomes.  We are better serving a youngster who leaves school with English and Maths GCSE and a pass in NVQ Information Technology, than we are a student with a pass in English and Maths and fails in History, Geography and Science.  In fact if the former pupil is enthused and motivated by the IT then we are probably still better off with that as an outcome than if we managed to scrape the same student a pass in 5 ‘academic’ GCSE’s but had them hating school and desperate to leave the education system at the first opportunity.  The 5 GCSE’s including English and Maths is, in my view, the right measure – and one I have no problem in being held to account to – or in striving to improve.

The one thing we do need to be wary of though is in allowing the acceptance of different ‘aptitudes’ to lazily drift into allocation of educational paths by social background.  i.e. the assumption that all working class kids will only have an aptitude for vocational studies, and all those nice middle class kids will all be academic.  You only have to look at Prince Harry’s exam results to realise that even with the best education that money can buy, some kids do not have an academic bent.   We absolutely do need to make sure that however we structure the education system those kids from the poorer areas who DO have an academic aptitude are identified and get the chance to follow that path.

I am not trying to make the case here for a system of secondary modern, and grammar schools.  That had its time and served very many, very well.   However, it made the call on an individual’s direction too early at 11. Under the right model you need not make the call until 14 and even then you can put in the flexibility to help course-correct (figuratively and literally!) if a mistake in choosing options been made.

The nut can be cracked with sensible setting within schools – and the confidence to share facilities between institutions so that as broad a curriculum as possible is on offer to all children regardless of the school they ended up in due to  accidents of geography and their parents background.  It does require a new, more adaptable way of thinking, but it will banish the damage that would be caused by either the ‘capability myth’ or the ‘aptitude myth’ that educational policy wonks on both side of the debate seem happy to inflict to prove their point.  So for this one Reform: stand at the back of class – must do better.

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Troop Surge in Afghanistan: Reflections

The week’s big ‘War-on-Terror’ story was the announced surge of troops into Afghanistan.  Many on the left have expressed dismay at President Obama’s decision and Gordon Brown’s copy-cat intent to up the British presence. The typical anti-surge rhetoric is that more troops will result in more deaths among both allied forces and the local population, the increased violence will in turn feed more recruits to the Taliban/Al Qaeda making a bad situation worse and increasing the risk of a domestic attack.

Recent precedent shows it may not play out like that.  The flawed leap of logic by the protestors is that more troops must inevitably lead to more violence.  It is not inevitable.  More troops, when deployed correctly bring greater security by denying the insurgents the space to operate, reducing the number of easy targets and by convincing the local population that the insurgents can be beaten.  Get it right and violence decreases.   The challenge is ‘getting it right’. The surge cannot be just about a bigger number it has to go hand-in-hand with a clear plan of what to do with that number.

The obvious precedent for this is the 2007 General  Petraeus Iraqi troop surge.  All the same arguments against that deployment were cited.  We see now that the ‘Iraq surge’ was a success and a real catalyst to allied forces ability to eventually exit the country and the beginning of the decline in allied deaths.  If you don’t learn from history you are doomed to repeat it.  Hopefully then, many of the team from Patraeus era are now involved in Afghanistan applying the lessons there. One key lesson is that the extra troops must be visible.   Locals naturally hedge their bets and try not to piss off insurgents if they believe the insurgents may one day win.  This tacit support isn’t always due to any ideological alignment more often it is simply a survival strategy.  Create an environment where the insurgents look likely to be beaten and you will suddenly reach a tipping point of people feeling bold and helping government forces, this then accelerates the insurgent’s demise.

The real tragedy in only deciding on the surge now is the implicit wasted years we’ve endured. It should not have taken this long to understand the military commitment needed to win both the war and the ‘post-war’.  This was the lesson from Vietnam that America seems to have gone full circle by learning, forgetting and relearning.  Back in the late 80s, early 90s academic strategists used to talk of something called the ‘Powell Doctrine’ named after the then Chairman of the Joint-Chiefs Colin Powell.  I am grossly over-simplifying but the gist of the ‘Powell Doctrine’ was that if you want to put US troops in harms way then you only ever do so with totally overwhelming force.  Find out what your Pentagon strategists say you need to win the war and ‘post-war’ – then literally double that number.  If you don’t get the big number – don’t go.  This leaves no likelihood of anything other than a swift, decisive victory.  The downside is that using these maths mean you have to commit the size of force you once expected to put out against the Soviets against even a medium size Middle-Eastern nation. Obviously this brings horrendous cost.   The doctrine was put to good use and proven in the interventions in Panama and the Iraq/Kuwait situation.  However, the huge cost implications meant that many felt it didn’t afford America ‘agility’, and by its nature meant you always ended up with a sledge hammer to crack any nut. The sad irony was that the Powell Doctrine vanished whilst Powell himself was in the most influential role of his career.  The doctrine was effectively lost in the post-911 Rumsfeld Pentagon.  Rumsfeld’s obsession with doing more with less did not serve his country well.  It’s a false economy to try and save a penny if in the long run it costs you pounds.  And never mind the pounds if it has cost you lives.

We owe it to the people in the field that they have the right number of troops and equipment to ‘do the job’ and this week’s announcement help with that.  The next step (or arguably the step that should have come first) is a public broadside on exactly what ‘the job’ is and what success will look like – but I’ll save my rant on that for another day……….

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