The sorry state of British education, part 1, GCSEs

The first in a three-part series on the sorry state of British education. Hope you enjoy these multi-part blogs. 

I started secondary school in 2008. Then, British secondary education was in a terrible mess; the Labour Education Secretary Ed Balls was presiding over a period of serious grade inflation. GCSEs, the qualification achieved by British 16-year olds, were getting easier, and the number of As and A*s being attained was increasing.

To rectify this, Balls’ successor, the Conservative Michael Gove revamped the GCSE curriculum. The subject matter would become more difficult. There would be a greater emphasis on ‘British values’, to make a more cohesive society and combat against extremism. And instead of students being graded A*-U, they would be graded 1-9, with 9 being the highest grade. The theory was that in the event of grade inflation, the exam boards could add numbers above 9 so the most capable students would be distinguished.

But in many respects, these reforms have backfired. It’s true that grade inflation has largely ceased.  But the curriculum is in many aspects too difficult. Schools are reporting increasing levels of anxiety and other mental health issues. The increasing reliance on exams over coursework doesn’t prepare students for the real world. The notion of British values is subjective and difficult to teach: are things like freedom of speech really British values or just universal liberal values? More importantly, Gove wanted to toughen the GCSE to allow state schools to compete against the more rigorous private schools. But the opposite has happened. Private schools, which use the world-recognised iGCSE, will have a higher proportion of their students get the top grade than state schools. This amounts to a major advantage for privately-educated students when applying to university. State school children will be taking harder exams than their fee-paying counterparts, in exchange for getting worse grades and consequently poorer prospects in higher education.

The lesson from all of this is that successive governments, both Labour and Conservative, have failed to reform the GCSE. The curriculum changes too quickly, leaving teachers to struggle with each period of reform. The league tables are meaningless since private schools now refuse to participate in them. Comprehensive education was meant to be egalitarian. Yet we now face a system where the wealthiest parents buy houses in the best catchment areas, thus securing the best places in the state school system. And for those who can afford it (or are lucky enough to win scholarships), private education is as much of an advantage as it has ever been.

The obvious solution to all this is for all schools to adopt the iGCSE. It’s an internationally-recognised, demanding but fair qualification. Since both private and state schools would use it, league tables would regain their relevance. It would be difficult at first for state schools to adjust, but it would be worth it in the long term. Most importantly, it would prevent the constant meddling by education secretaries, since the iGCSE curriculum is run by the University of Cambridge. It would be a fair outcome for all students. If only the government had the humility to admit it.

Next Monday, the sorry state of A-levels. 

Genuine complaints received by from customers by Thomas Cook Vacations

1. “On my holiday to Goa in India, I was disgusted to find that almost every restaurant served curry. I don’t like spicy food.”
2. “They should not allow topless sunbathing on the beach. It was very distracting for my husband who just wanted to relax.”
3. “We went on holiday to Spain and had a problem with the taxi drivers as they were all Spanish.”
4. “We booked an excursion to a water park but no-one told us we had to bring our own swimsuits and towels. We assumed it would be included in the price.”
5. “The beach was too sandy. We had to clean everything when we returned to our room.”
6. “We found the sand was not like the sand in the brochure. Your brochure shows the sand as white but it was more yellow.”
7. “It’s lazy of the local shopkeepers to siesta in the afternoons. I often needed to buy things during ‘siesta’ time — this should be banned.”
8. “No-one told us there would be fish in the water. The children were scared.”
9. “Although the brochure said that there was a fully equipped kitchen, there was no egg-slicer in the drawers.”
10. “I think it should be explained in the brochure that the local convenience store does not sell proper biscuits like custard creams or ginger nuts.”
11. “The roads were uneven and bumpy, so we could not read the local guide book during the bus ride to the resort. Because of this, we were unaware of many things that would have made our holiday more fun.”
12. “It took us nine hours to fly home from Jamaica to England. It took the Americans only three hours to get home. This seems unfair.”
13. “I compared the size of our one-bedroom suite to our friends three-bedroom suite and ours was significantly smaller.”
14. “The brochure stated: ‘No hairdressers at the resort.’ We’re trainee hairdressers and we think they knew and made us wait longer for service.”
15. “When we were in Spain, there were too many Spanish people there. The receptionist spoke Spanish, the food was Spanish. No one told us that there would be so many foreigners.”
16. “We had to line up outside to catch the boat and there was no air-conditioning.”
17. “It is your duty as a tour operator to advise us of noisy or unruly guests before we travel.”
18. “I was bitten by a mosquito. The brochure did not mention mosquitoes.”
19. “My fiancée and I requested twin-beds when we booked, but instead we were placed in a room with a king bed. We now hold you all responsible and want to be re-reimbursed for the fact that I became pregnant. This would not have happened if you had put us in the room that we booked.”

These quotations rxplain a lot. Too much for one posting.

The difference between being educated and being cultured.

“Culture is only really culture when it has diffused itself through every root and fibre of our endurance of life. Then it can become wisdom, a wisdom that can accept defeat, and turn defeat into victory. It can render us independent of our weakness, of our surroundings and of our age, a fortress for the self within the self, and a universal thing, breaking down of barriers of race, of class, of nation”. (John Cowper Powys (1872-1863), British novelist, philosopher, literary critic, educator and poet).

Powys thought that this kind of culture should permeate the soul, otherwise what passes for culture is a falsehood devoid of humanity. Just being intellectual or an aesthete is not enough, for culture without human goodness is “weird and even terrifying”. Culture reminded him of horticulture: the problem is how to graft the subtle and the exquisite upon the deep and vital. “Only by this grafting can the sap of the natural give life and strength to the unusual, and the roots of the rugged sweeten the distinguished and rare”.

The grafting is the true task of philosophy: to add to a person’s cleverness and erudition an inner identity that can withstand the jungles of brutality, greed, stupidity, self-interest and self-regard. The innermost self, the fortress, should be a source of real feelings and sensations of kindness, true thoughtfulness for others and concern for the welfare of the community.

Tom Wolfe said, “The more culture a man has the more austerely – though naturally with many ironic reserves – does he abide by his own taste“. In other words he is an authentic person who lives his philosophy of life. He is not an intellectual or a snob – he treats every man and woman with politeness and respect. He smiles a lot, he knows how to conduct a conversation, can give and take, and can diffuse a tense atmosphere with humour (something rare, a sense of humour!) He can cope with opposing “truths”, comment without anger or snide remarks, listen and charm. It comes easily because he has internalised it as part of his daily life. To philosophise is not to read philosophy; it is to feel philosophy.

On this blog we encourage readers to learn about Epicureanism – not so different from organised religion, but without the supernatural, the dogma, the preachers and the sects.
Let it’s principles be your “fortress”.

Bereft of effective leadership!

“I am opposed to the UK government’s key policy (Brexit), but then so, until recently, was she (Theresa May). There’s a job that doesn’t need doing and, increasingly, it feels like she is just the person not to do it.” (David Mitchell, Guardian Weekly, April 13)

Meanwhile, a friend pointed out that the ineffectiveness of the Labour opposition is rational, if hardly patriotic or responsible. Who in their right mind would want to take on the Brexit negotiations? The last thing the opposition wants is a General Election that they could possibly win. Would you welcome this poisoned chalice, especially since many Labour voters are reportedly changing their mind and are now Remainers?

The other side of the coin is this: What are national politicians for unless they aim to help run the country as pragmatic leaders? Looking back years to dreams of pure Socialism, unsullied by reality, is doing favours to no one. There is currently no Her Majesty’s Opposition”. Epicurus advised against going into politics, and you can understand why. But he never said there should be no effective government!

Immigration again: victims of domestic and gang violence

In recent months, there has been a surge in the number of immigrants trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Immigrant rights advocates say that is because they’re fleeing extreme violence in their home countries — violence that shows no signs of abating.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has broad powers over the nation’s immigration courts, has now imposed new limits on who can get asylum in the United States. “Asylum was never meant to alleviate all problems — even all serious problems — that people face every day all over the world,” he is reported as saying. In his decision, Sessions argues the asylum system is intended to protect not victims of violent crime but people fleeing from persecution, like religious minorities or political dissidents. Immigrant rights advocates, on the other hand, fear the lives of asylum-seekers will be in danger when they are returned to their countries of origin.

Sessions and other immigration hard-liners say that it has become too easy to claim asylum in the United States — and that migrants know this and game the system. Immigrant advocates, however, say Sessions is taking away an essential lifeline for victims of domestic abuse and gang violence and turning his back on an American legacy of protecting the most vulnerable, particularly those women who are persecuted by their husbands and ignored by their own governments. (edited version of an article by Joel Rose, NPR News, June 11 2018).

It is legitimate to try to winnow out the cheaters and gangsters. Having said that, the US would almost grind to a halt (only a slight exaggeration) if there were no immigrants willing to serve tables, pick fruit, tidy gardens, clear gutters and paint houses. Why? Because white Americans are not prepared to take those poor-paying jobs, and the white birthrate doesn’t in any case provide a big enough workforce to meet demand. I agree that bringing over grandparents and extended family members is (arguably) a stretch.

It is instructive to note that the Greeks in the days of Epicurus had slaves to do the work similar to that of modern immigrants. But these slaves could look forward to eventual freedom. This wasn’t the slavery of the ante-bellum South. Epicurus himself is noted for treating them with human kindness and respect, welcoming them as equals into his garden.

In short, we need immigrants; let them be.

Are you being a “fascist” if you want to curb immigration?

“Here’s some advice to my fellow liberals: If you want to defend liberal democracy in this age of “noisy populist movements”, stop condemning people who disagree with you about immigration. In both America and Europe, liberal commentators tend to treat every call for immigration curbs as a xenophobic assault on democracy.

“Yet the conflation of liberal values with an enthusiastically pro-immigration stance “mistakes a policy preference for a first principle”. Wide-open borders are not a prerequisite of a democratic society in the way that, say, a free press or judicial independence are. “Populist” proposals to restrict immigration here and in Europe are “actually quite popular”.

“Many on the Left not only refuse to acknowledge this, but behave as if the very concept of borders is immoral. Activists “egg on” so-called sanctuary cities to defy federal immigration laws, and call for policies that would “eliminate any meaningful distinctions between citizens and non-citizens”. As long as liberals refuse to make any concessions on immigration, and portray “every move to strengthen borders or discourage further migratory waves” as one more step in the march to fascism, “the only people who benefit will be fascists”. (James Kirchick, New York Post, March 24 2018)

What should be the attitude of Epicureans to migration? I reach for one of the obvious principles: moderation. Given a wide enough door you get a large influx, including grannies, aunts and uncles, who may need financial and housing support. The new immigrants keep their own language and culture en masse, making integration difficult. We are all tribal to some extent, and it is natural and human for the indigenous folk to resent the change in their culture and way of life, not to mention the diversion of resources (especially housing). It is not “fascist”.

My personal attitude is that we should accept refugees from violence and war, but for, say , five years or until the conflict ends. These people should be helped, but then return to rebuild their countries. Then, we should welcome those with badly needed education and skills (since we are not good, on either side of the Atlantic, at producing them ourselves). But illegal immigration is illegal immigration, and I think it is reasonable to ask illegals to wait in line and enter through the official system, making their case as they go.

I am a legal immigrant to the United States and I went through (the long, clumsy, bureaucratic) system with increasing dismay, but stuck at it and eventually became a dual citizen. What I did others can do. Moderation.

Helping the less well-off

What can be done to stem the populist anger felt by people who feel adrift in the modern economy? Across the world politicians have been seizing on the same remedy: raise the minimum wage. Businesses and economists have long claimed this would cost jobs: yet that’s not what happened when Germany introduced a minimum wage of €8.50 in 2015, to help those who’d “slipped through the cracks of its otherwise strong economy”. A new study by the EU agency Eurofound has shown that wage inequality in Germany fell in 2015 by more than in any other EU country, as did wage disparities between rich and poor regions, yet with no damage to job prospects.

So now Germany is set to raise the minimum by a further 4%. It has been a similar story here in Britain: a higher minimum wage introduced in 2016 has led to a 10% increase for those on the lowest wage rung: yet employment rates are at record highs. But it’s no panacea, and not just because raising the minimum beyond a certain level can backfire. The enduring problem is that even if better paid, most of those on the bottom rung never climb up to the next. Until we solve that one, people at the bottom will continue to feel adrift and angry.
(Sarah O’Connor, Financial Times)

The fact is that those on a minimum wage spend all they get and save little or nothing. This translates into higher sales for basic goods everywhere and a stronger economy. Germany seems to be a good example. The corollary is that if you have a huge giveaway to the rich most of the proceeds are either saved or spent on luxuries. If you want to prime an economy you should boost the income of the poorest people and watch as it is all spent immediately on necessities. I am no economist, but this is common sense. Not, however, to politicians dependent on election funds from the rich.

One of the most noticeable things on both sides of the Atlantic is that, as retail businesses disappear at the hands of online commerce, the empty spaces left on the high street or shopping mall are often taken by small fast food businesses or cheap restaurants. This is because they are relatively cheap to set up, require small-ish capital outlays and it is easy to find workers. But their owners can be the most resistant to paying higher minimum wages. We who shop online are making uncomfortable beds for ourselves.

Why Jeremy Corbyn should resign.

Last week I posted about why the centre-left is in decline. Today, I wanted to talk about a party that has bucked the trend. Since Jeremy Corbyn succeeded Ed Miliband as the British Labour Party leader following its defeat in the 2015 general election, he has done what hardly anyone thought possible- substantially increase the proportion of people voting for a centre-left party. Contrary to expectations, the 2017 general election went surprisingly well for Labour, who received 40% of the vote. Not only that, Labour went from having just over 100 000 members when Corbyn took over to having 550 000 today. Corbyn survived a leadership contest against the hapless Owen Smith, and now has unchallenged authority within the party. And while much of that success was undoubtedly due to an ineffective and lacklustre Conservative campaign, Corbyn nevertheless deserves credit for bringing his partly within touching distance of power.

I’ve spoken before about the British Left’s anti-Semitism problem, before it became the salient issue it is now. I stand my ground in my analysis: that Corbyn has isn’t anti-Semitic himself, but far too tolerant of those who are, partly because some anti-Semites are fellow Palestinian nationalists. But Corbyn’s recent handling of the scandal, including his refusal to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, is shameful. He ought to resign before Labour wrongly gets a reputation as a racist party, not helped of course by a largely hostile press.

However, Corbyn’s approach to the anti-Semitism row isn’t the only reason why he should resign. The Conservative minority government is one of the weakest in living memory. On every major issue, it is bitterly divided. Brexit- the biggest event Britain has experienced since WW2- is being negotiated by the most incompetent and foolish people imaginable. Post-recession wage stagnation is the worst of any developed country expect Greece. London and its hinterlands are facing a severe housing crisis, which has reduced disposable incomes, home ownership rates and increased homelessness. Child poverty has increased as a result of changes to the welfare system and is forecast to increase further. Britain is in a dire state, as the currency markets have made that clear by the Pound’s continued decline.

But the Corbyn-led Labour Party has failed to capitalise on any of this. It hasn’t produced a coherent alternative to the government’s Brexit plans, preferring to criticise the Conservatives opportunistically and inconsistently. It has no post-Brexit vision. Its members are pro-EU and favour a second referendum, yet the leadership lacks the courage and the conviction to argue for one. It talks a good talk on welfare, yet in practice, they propose to keep the vast majority of the welfare cuts in place. Labour has some popular policies, like railways re-nationalisation. But without the willingness to pull those policies together in a compelling, workable alternative plan, as well as the political nous to address scandals, they mean little.

Corbyn should resign because Britain desperately needs a strong opposition and comprehensive alternative to this shambolic Tory government. Corbyn became Labour leader because he was seen as different. In recent months he has failed to distinguish himself- on Brexit, austerity, and an overall commitment to a liberal society. He should be replaced by someone who can properly articulate a social democratic future. My personal preference would be the MP for Tottenham, David Lammy. On scandals faced by the Conservatives, such as the Grenfell Tower blaze or the deportation of British citizens who came to Britain in the 50s, he has held them to account with more eloquence and passion than anyone else. He shares Corbyn’s belief in the necessity of state infrastructure investments and well-funded social insurance programmes. But he lacks the current leader’s Euroscepticism, which has alienated Labour’s youthful base and made an honest, consistent Brexit policy impossible. More importantly, he isn’t associated with the sins of the old Left: the unconditional support for Palestinian nationalists, Irish nationalists, Iran, and South American autocrats like Chavez and Castro. No one can charge Lammy with wanting to take Britain back to the 1970s. But even if it isn’t Lammy, Labour needs to change. Complacency in the aftermath of the 2017 surprise could be the party’s undoing. It needs to be credible at all times. And under Corbyn, that simply won’t happen.