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Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Abyss Gazes Also...

When I started this blog over a decade ago and named it after a quote by Nietzsche, I was probably trying to appear more intelligent and well-read than I actually am.

Today however I am genuinely reflecting on his aphorism from "Beyond Good & Evil",
"He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster.  And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into thee"
I find the behaviour of our Prime Minister and of the Leader of Her Majesty's opposition beyond the pale. I am angry and upset by what appear to be their joint efforts to manipulate a genuine constitutional crisis to their own shallow political ends. However, in the spirit of the quote above I shall attempt to moderate my language. Intemperate language leads inevitably and inexorably to inhuman behaviour such as Friday's events in Christchurch.

1. We live in a representative democracy. This means we elect MPs whom we charge with exercising their discretion in forming and running a government. If we don't like what they do we get to change the cast of MPs at a general election.

2. We had a referendum in 2016 that narrowly approved leaving the EU. Please don't believe all the nonsense of the "biggest mandate in history"; 51.9% to 48.1% is marginal. We have had higher voter turnouts in nearly all the general elections between 1945 and 1992 (we just have a bigger population now and general elections are not binary choices).

3. The referendum was not constitutionally binding.

4. Since the referendum we had a general election explicitly called by Theresa May in 2017 to give her a mandate to deliver her version of Brexit. The British public did not give her that mandate.

5. The 'government' and its 'opposition' (and those inverted commas should drip with sarcasm) have utterly failed to govern or to represent over the last two years. Whilst I had some sympathy for Theresa May at the beginning of her tenure and some time for Corbyn's 'man of the people' act, I find them now both beneath contempt. Neither has shown any leadership. This is not the MPs fault.

6. MPs now have a choice:

  • Sail over the cliff edge into the abyss of No Deal
Or seize control of the order paper and find a motion that has the support of a majority in the house which will be either:

  • Some form of customs union with the EU (Norway+ or whatever)
  • Or repeal Article 50 entirely and remain
The trouble with these two is the EU is under no obligation to accept any deal other than that which Theresa May has already obtained and had roundly rejected multiple times. So to propose a new deal at this stage risks no deal. We can only unilaterally repeal Article 50, we cannot unilaterally amend or postpone it. 

I don't think that a general election would help as the two main party leaders are inept and there is no adequately funded alternative. Likewise why have another referendum unless you agreed to have another one again after that. The trouble started by having a referendum in the first place with a massive complex set of issues absurdly reduced to a binary choice.

So the choice is not "deal or no deal". It is slightly less catchy "no deal or repeal"

Sadly I suspect that the former is more likely.

What a fucking mess!

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Scapegoats R Us

I have often wondered over the past decade just how much more responsibility we are prepared to heap upon our school leaders before they snap? It would appear that we remain happy to keep adding to the pile...!

This morning I heard the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan on the Today programme appear to imply that schools in general and academies in particular were responsible for the rise in knife crime.  He suggested a link between the rise in 'off-rolling' (a practice where schools and academies are alleged to informally exclude children who are perceived to be a threat to their academic standards) and the rise in knife crime. By extrapolation he shifted the blame onto school leaders whom he implied were dodging their moral responsibility as a result of government's education policies.

First and foremost, he is making a causal link that doesn't appear to exist. But the thing that really gets my goat is that I am convinced that he understands that this is a deeply complex piece of socio-politics that he ought to be reaching out to address not jumping to blame.

I think it is reasonable to assert that we are living in a period of social upheaval. The notion of society itself may even be in decline. The purpose of government is to foster and maintain an interconnected set of norms and laws by which we all agree (directly and indirectly) to abide. Government then protects, educates and nurtures those inside its borders. In return its citizens agree to respect the laws and pay the taxes. But if government fails to protect, educate or nurture, why would anyone respect the laws or pay taxes?

The social contract between government and citizens is one of delayed gratification. If we all do this, then we will all be better off in the long run. Well, if your lived experience is that there is no benefit whatever coming to you or your family, why wouldn't you start to challenge the whole system? And you can challenge in any number of ways.

Politicians appear to be distancing themselves increasingly from practitioners, the people who actually do the work. This has to stop. If our instruments of government were inspected by Ofsted today they would be placed in Special Measures. The "leadership" (and those inverted commas should be seen as dripping with sarcasm) is completely disconnected from the people that it purports to serve and equally dismissive of those its employs to serve its people.

The rise in knife crime was predictable and was predicted by many. Its multiple roots lie in the massive fragmentation and defunding of the education system, the absence of properly funded Alternative Provision, the underfunding of the police force, the collapse of inter-disciplinary co-operation between education, social care, health and justice. This in turn was a predictable impact of the global financial collapse and ensuing depression that hurt the poor but didn't seem to touch the rich.

If we are going to address these problems, we have got to get out of our individual bunkers and stop lobbing stones at perceived enemies.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Who will rid us of this turbulent Brexit?

Earlier in the week David Cameron again refused to accept any responsibilty or display any remorse [1] for our omnispasmoid political system. Would someone kindly introduce him to the definition of 'hubris', preferably forcefully with the full hardback edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. I'm sorry if that metaphor was a little violent but isn't pride supposed to come before the fall....?

The supreme arrogance of the man. Does he have no doubt? Or shame? I think one thing that most voters would agree on is that any attempt by either Blair or Cameron to return to the politcal scene should be met with pitchforks and withering sarcasm.

It must by now be abundantly clear to all bar the most extreme medically maintained remoaner or pre-frontal Brexiteer that we are fucked. Like the James Franco charcater in 127 Hours, we know we are not getting out of here intact. So now is the time to bite down on the leather and start sawing off an appendage. But which one?

For [insert deity of choice]'s sake, please let's not have another referendum. If David hasn't realised yet, which is odd given that he allegedly studied PPE, referenda are the tools of demogogues and dictators. Morevoer, you tend to get answers to questions that weren't on the ballot paper. And I'm really sorry but if you don't understand that point, then you don't really deserve to have a vote. It will only exacerabate the divsions and no-one will agree on the question(s) let alone the answers.

This is up to parliament. We have a parliamentary democracy for a reason. It is,

"The worst form of government... Apart from all the others" - Winston Churchill, Nov 1947

but it balances a professional political class who are supposed to 'get it' with a popular vote that doesn't. Which is the ultimate check and balance.

So, what's it to be?

Hard Brexit. Buckle up this one will be bumpy. There would be a delicious schadenfreude in watching Johnson, Fox, Rees Mogg and Davis realise just how unimportant Britain now is on the world stage. The trouble is that they would not be the ones to suffer. The poor and already disenfranchised will bear the brunt of this and it will will be medievally severe.

Rescind Article 50 altogether. No, not the John Major's stop the clock and pray that someone comes to their senses version. Just cancel it. The majority of MPs are still pro-Europe, they just say they 'respect the will of the people' because they are terrified that it might be directed straight at them. Go on just cancel it. Tell Juncker and co. that we were only kidding. The problem with this is that although the next general election is not till 2022 and it is quite possible that many people will have forgotten by then it is just as likely that this might lead to the complete disintegration of our society. It is entirely possible that a party that doesn't currently exist to either extreme (left or right) could be formed in time to romp home on the lowest turnout in UK election history.

Lop off the appendages. Set Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales (and Cornwall if they so desire) free. The absurdities of the backstop are largely responsible for the current chaos. This is extreme surgery to save the patient (Mrs. May's "Best Possible Deal"[2]). Because it might make the English finally wake up and realise what the rest of the world actually thinks of us.

Or Bloody revolution? Well were it not for the fact that as part of "The Establishment" I would probably be one of the first against the wall, this might be quite an attractive proposition.

Which leaves me in the throughly unpleasant situation of being a died-in-the wool European who probably supports a hard Brexit. Europe will be better off without us and we, quite frankly, deserve it.

[1] Please note I have used The Sun as the source so I can't be excused of liberal metropolitan bias
[2] Does anyone else hear Kenny Everett's Cupid Stunt everytime someone says 'Best Possible Deal'

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Uses and abuses of data in the era of the scapegoat

An article in Schools Week yesterday framed comments I made to the reporter in light of 'intervention' which is an emotive word at the best of times. My fault for telling Jess that she didn't need to check her quotes with me before publishing.

First, let's establish the real issue, which is how do we lessen the cognitive load on teachers? This is the intention behind the government's latest comments. Basically they are saying, "Don't just measure for the sake of measuring" or "Stop just weighing the pig and concentrate on feeding it a little more". And in this I wholeheartedly support them rather than oppose them as the article implied. There is absolutely no point in asking for data that doesn't inform or lead to improvements.

Unfortunately, we still operate in a high stakes low trust system and simply reducing the reporting burden doesn't mean that things will magically get better. But the difficulty with any data is that it should never be used away from the context in which it was gathered. 

I was trying to point out that the context of the relationship between the data provider and the data requirer has a massive impact both consciously and unconsciously on the data provided. To put it simply, if as your boss I ask you to provide me with data on how you are doing, the first thing you will do is wonder what I will do with this data. If you think you are not doing as well as you might but that I will not provide any help or support and will merely punish you for failing you will spin your data in a positive light. If you think I am an idiot with no understanding of your environment you will also attempt to influence the data. Only if you genuinely trust that I will be understanding and provide support, will you provide information to me that might make you vulnerable.

Now, the state has clearly set out its stall here. We are in a world of 'high autonomy and high accountability', never mind that the first part of that statement is utter hogwash. And this leads us to the problem if you don't have freedom to innovate because you are paralysed by the impact of multiple accountability regimes you are highly unlikely to thrive.

I wouldn't be so bold to assert that my school leaders Trust me. What I am trying to do is build an environment in which they Trust me and each other more than the system as a whole. If we can achieve that then and only then will the flow of data be unpolluted by its context.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

What the F & F?!

This morning the House of Commons Education Committee published its report into exclusions and alternative provision. It is quite lengthy and I have only skimmed it but Martin George at TES does a summary in his article here. He picks out for his first paragraph the accusation from the Committee that, 
"There appears to be a lack of moral accountability on the part of many schools"
To which my immediate response is how very dare they!!!

The rise in fixed term and permanent exclusions is an entirely predictable consequence of the fragmentation and funding (or lack thereof) of the English school system!

  • Local authorities who have the statutory duty for safeguarding and ensuring sufficient school places have been eviscerated by the chaotic and unplanned rollout of academies
  • Multi-academy trusts are not paid anything to meet the system costs of running their schools
  • MATs and LAs are often set up as adversaries in the system fighting for resources that neither has access to, rather than collaborating in the interests of children
  • Advances in obstetric science have meant a massive increase in survival rates of premature babies (up 33% for babies born between 22 and 26 weeks between 1995 and 2006), these children have a significantly higher incidence of SEND and behavioural issues that schools are often unable to cope with
  • There is a creeping preference for a command and control approach to education that prejudices against the disadvantaged, dehumanises children and puts society at risk (see previous post about Hannah Arendt)
  • It also only favours those children who are lucky to have informed advocates (pushy parents) who fight for them
Fragmentation and Funding (hence the title of my post) are the causes of this problem and oddly the former is not even mentioned in the report. Don't have a pop at schools, LAs, MATs or anyone else who is doing their absolute best to mitigate the damage of this extended experiment in self-harm.

Some suggestions:
  • Consolidate the system into fewer entities (either by turning LAs into MATs or merging MATs) but 1,370+ different legal entities more than half of whom are non-viable in the medium term is just a waste of time and money
  • Create a mechanism for mediating between schools and LAs on referrals to places in AP to address the degree to which fixed term exclusions and permanent exclusions are chips in a high stakes gamble that benefits no-one
  • Embed more specialist provision units in main stream school to support children with medical and other needs and fund them properly: this will cross pollinate specialist teaching practice into the mainstream profession 
  • Attempt to understand the massive and often unreasonable efforts made in mainstream schools to retain children often to the detriment of other children because of the moral purpose they are accused of lacking
  • Understand that this is a problem that starts in Primary schools not a Secondary one. Experiment with a more fluid approach to behaviour management provision that resists labelling a child 'excluded' or 'failed' when it is the behaviour not the child that is the issue 

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Rehumanize ourselves: what is the threshold of materiality for society?

I was at city hall this morning with the Deputy Mayor for Crime and Policing and a number of other MAT CEOs and Chairs to discuss knife crime. The event was in part to discuss issues and in part to raise awareness of the Mayor's 'London Needs You Alive" initiative for schools.

I may have mused in this blog before about Hannah Arendt's theories on the dehumanising effects of bureaucracy which are a precursor to totalitarianism. But it wasn't until this morning that I made the connection with the rise of the internet.

Freud said, "Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness". Arendt in the 'Human Condition', took issue with Karl Marx over the difference between 'labour' and 'work' and explored the impact of automation removing the sense of purpose from work. Both were addressing the very essence of what it is to be 'human'.

The difficulty when applying complex philosophical ideas to the messy construct of reality is that they often don't fit.

People want to matter. But it is increasingly clear that many, indeed perhaps most, feel that they don't. This sense of disenfranchisement is behind Brexit, Trump and the rise in knife crime. If you feel that you don't matter, you are going to struggle to create an identity.

I have railed in these pages before about the depressing and negative impact of bureaucracy upon people and society. As Arendt explains if you reduce a person to a statistic, it is much easier to do terrible things to them.

But the parallel dehumanising process is our move via our devices into alternative unreal spaces that are very different from the alternative realities of books and films. New spaces in which we can kill and violate others under the pretext that trolling, hate-speech and violent gaming are somehow only metaphorical they do not have very real consequences. In doing this we normalise the abnormal.

It is therefore easy to see how an inner-city minority ethnic youth or indeed your child may be so convinced of their own worthlessness that they cannot be expected to value the lives of others.

I have said for years that communities are built at the gates of primary schools. But we cannot leave Primary headteachers to carry this burden alone. We need to show them that their children, staff and schools matter to us. As how else will they create this construct in our young people? This is as important if not more important than teaching children how to read and write. Because if children do not feel safe or valued they will learn very little.

As we head into the accounting year end for academies, conversations will be held with auditors about the 'threshold of materiality'. How can we as a society have a broader conversation with those people who are completely convinced that they don't matter?

If you do anything today, make someone else believe they matter to you and to others.

P.S. Apologies to the Police for the mangling of their song title.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Echoes of the past and judging fishes by their ability to climb trees...

One of the things that I've always had difficulty articulating is the size and scale of the unknown unknowns that are the unintended consequences of structural reform in our fragmented education system. 

Taken together with the fallacy of understanding (i.e. just because I think I understand the problem doesn't mean that I do; just because I am clear about what I think I said doesn't mean that you understood me; just because you say you understand etc. etc. ... you get my drift)

There's an adage used in education circles which is often misattributed to Einstein
"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." 
The 'quote' is rolled out when discussing the utility or lack thereof in testing children. But I think there is more mileage when thinking about the system as a whole. I spent a significant portion of the 1990s living and working in Moscow when the former Soviet Union was completely reinventing itself under Yeltsin. I have made comparisons before on conference platforms between this period of furious making-it-up-as-we-go and the ongoing process of structural education reforms in this country.

The contrasts I drew were that in a self-reinventing system, control and oversight is often knee-jerk and self-contradictory. But the analogy also works elsewhere.

I remember with great fondness the introduction of Western financial services products to Russia when Russian citizens had absolutely no concept of what 'insurance' or 'bank loans' were in much the same way as a fish lacks the construct of what a tree is and whether it should climb it. Russians would take out a loan to buy a car and then refuse to make any repayments and be utterly bewildered by threats from hastily invented bailiffs who lacked the legal authority to proceed.

Turning a school into an academy is entirely analogous with this in that both the headteachers to whom we are entrusting the management of the system and the self-multiplying central bureaucrats who are running to keep up with the inevitable chaos that ensues lack the constructs to deal with it and often lack an understanding of each other's behaviour. So genuine mistake begets overreaction begets mistrust begets centralisation and control begets waste...

Oddly this though rhymes with another conversation I had last week with a fellow linguist about Allophonia. We were talking about synthetic phonics and the weaknesses of separating sound from meaning in the teaching of language. I remembered with fondness Anthony Burgess's book, "A mouthful of air" which I had loved when I was young. In it Burgess explains the problem of Allophonia as being unable to distinguish between two phonemes because one does not know how to make them in one's mouth.

He describes the classic English speaker's complete inability to distinguish between the French words 'dessus' and 'desous' (above and below... which is kind of important). And then explains how to make a French 'u' sound by using English phonemes. First arrange your lips teeth and tongue to make the sound 'ee' as in bleed and then keeping the tongue and teeth in that position round your lips to make an 'o' as in blow. Practise that for a bit and you will start to hear the difference between 'dessus' and 'dessous'.

This fundamental weakness of blaming people for not being able to distinguish between things of which they have no experience and then overreacting to their failing plays itself out across the sector daily.