Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Loony Liberals and the Unions

I feel that, through no fault of the the parents, there is an expectation to work before looking after your family. Living costs mean it is unaffordable for only one parent to work and there is less importance attached to bringing up children.

An appalling Tory dinosaur, perhaps?

Well no, actually. One of those liberal types at the yooniuns as it goes. Mourning the loss of family life and the outcomes that have accompanied the move toward nationalising parenting putting children in school for ten hours a day. Expressing the concerns of a vast majority of teachers in so doing.

But then this is the world Michael Gove envisions, encapsulating his less than rigorous protection of that keystone of conservative thought: the family. Which cheers his liberal allies in the Labour Party, at one as they are with him on this precise point.

And all the while social conservatives on his own benches cheer and laud him as their hero, precisely whilst he pulls the rug from under their most cherished beliefs.

But then caricatured culture wars are a bit like that - close your eyes and your ears and you'll soon unwittingly smear your allies and cheer your foes.

And so whilst Michael Gove and the rest of statist liberals at the DfE continue to nationalise parenting reform education it'll be down to the loony-liberal teachers and the loony-liberal yooniuns to oppose this most insidious and incessant creep of liberalism.

And it's against the whole political system that they do it.

Backwoodsmen, indeed.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Gove's liberalism might just prove useful

I've long said that Michael Gove is far more liberal authoritarian than any Labour occupant of the DfE hotseat ever dared to be. Such as here. And here. And here.

Well, since that analysis of Gove is starting to take off, it turns out that he might just be the useful idiot those of a postliberal hue have long needed in order to highlight the nature of their critique. This from Mary Boustead, general secretary of the ATL:

We are the poor man of Europe when it comes to unpaid overtime and there is a massive pressure to be present in the workplace and there is not a culture in the UK as there is in other European countries, particularly Scandinavian countries, which understand that raising a family is hard work and that if we're going to have a healthy next generation and if we're going to make family life do-able and if we're going to do something about the breakdown in families, the incidence of divorce and family break up then we have to do more to support family life, whether that's both parents working, one parent working or no parents working.
Those loony liberals at the yooniuns, huh?

Saturday, 29 March 2014

'Not for a fire in Ely fen...'

It was at a dance festival where the thought first occurred. A rather good dance festival, as it goes. Featuring 16 or so (I confess I lost count) local schools who put on their own particular dance for an auditorium filled with proud family and friends. All ages, all abilities, all themes.

Did I mention it was good? It really was. The kind of thing that leaves one with a warm glow and a feeling of satisfaction that we, too, in some small way, help make this. That for everything we have to carp about, the kids will be alright.  They will.

And my own daughter? Well, her and her Reception class danced the story of Noah. It was excellent. I, on the front row (like any self-respecting embarrassing Dad), could not have been more proud. It was the only dance with a religious theme, mind (another school [rural, CofE] performed an excellent telling the story of St George, with full Wagner-esque pomp ). These four year olds, telling the story of Noah, each movement meaning something, each child in his or her particular place, moving at a particular time, along to particular music, a sort of beautiful, post-toddler kinaesthetic symphony.

And then I heard it: ‘what’s that then?’ It was from an adult couple in my vicinity. They were referring to the rainbow. And the appearance of dry land, I think. Anyway, it soon became clear that they were not the only adults sat round and about who did not know much about the story of Noah. Or what happens in it. Or what certain fundamental aspects of the story mean. Or what they tell us. Or how they shape us. Still.

And so that thought with which I started: my four year old daughter, and her colleagues, already in possession of more knowledge, in this regard more cultural capital, than a selection of perfectly respectable, intelligent, discerning adults. And if it’s Noah for four year olds then we might imagine where the boundary lies come sixteen.

Mad, that.

But it linked to something that has had me curious for a while. It’s this Hirschian revolution thing, which I’m a fan of really. I’ve always wondered why it is so light on the theological. So scant with the scriptural. Hirsch, to be sure, does give (brief) mention to these things, and his devotees at least tip their hats in that direction, but it rarely goes farther than that. And the question would have to be: why not?

If cultural capital is an important thing, then scriptural knowledge is central to that. Indeed, if cultural capital and intellectual heritage is an important thing, then theology is central to that. Literature, art, music, science, philosophy, law, language – take your pick. To the extent that I’ve just deleted a paragraph worth of apologia for such a claim on the basis that it seems so startlingly obvious that anyone who either cherished or possessed any of the above couldn’t really fail to acknowledge or be aware of it.

But then that last bit is the key, isn’t it? Being aware of it. Our canon is currently fighting a war against claims of imperialism when it should be fighting a war against threats of philistinism. For currently it sacrifices too much in the name of being open minded, and in so doing gives away the key to distribute precisely that cultural capital which really does open minds. And so the philistinism creeps on and consumes the canon, as those charged with populating it become less and less aware of that with which it might be populated.

It’s a common enough recognition, that the Dark Ages were a period of time when Western culture was nearly drowned by philistinism, to be preserved only by the monks in their scriptoria, East and West, frenziedly copying down the jewels of human thought, Christian and heathen alike. They saved the West, or so the annals tell it.

The thought never occurs that such a project might ever be needed again. Not because the knowledge will disappear in a flurry of ashes as libraries burn to the ground, but because it might lie as dust, itself the sign of neglect, forgotten in plain sight, a relic that disintegrates through lack of curiosity from a modern day Eloi who have decided there are more important things to pursue. 

And so we should raise a glass to our Catholic schools, indeed to all faith schools who authentically live their calling, busily preserving the treasures of our culture, the roots and foundations of it and all, the modern day monks in their scriptoria, frenziedly preserving what the contemporary has decided, in its own fit of philistinism, to casually cast away.

And a casual reminder to those who don’t of why they really should.

Remembering (Boarding) School

I once blogged in nostalgic though, I hope, still grounded terms on my year in an English boarding school when I was a junior.

This, from Peter Hitchens, on the same topic, really is a great read -

Such, Such were the Joys

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Why I'm Striking

I have a child in school. In Reception class to be more precise. I also have three other pre-school children. And, God willing, who knows what else the future might bring.

And so, as I send my child off to school each morning, the hope and emotion I feel is that of a parent, not a professional. I want the best for my kids. We all do. It’s only natural.

What does this mean?

Well, it means I want a qualified teacher standing in front of her. A teacher who is not so exhausted from the excess demands of the job that they have not had time to plan lessons properly. A teacher who has the time to look at her work and tell her what is good about it, and tell her how it could be even better. A teacher who is not so creaking with workload that the intangibles which really do shape an education are not forever competing with an almighty focus on the measurables which can distort so much. A teacher with the time and freedom to talk to my child, to cherish her, to help her flourish, to keep her steady as she makes her first steps in this complex and sometimes confusing world. And to educate her. To make her cleverer. To open doors for her and give her the confidence and grounding to walk through them. Not a number on a progress sheet, but a person. A human person. A beautiful soul.

Teachers, on the whole, really are heroes. My child’s teacher certainly is. But it is often in spite of the demands of this system, or wearily in the face of it, rather than because of it. This is as true for secondary as it is for primary.

An education system that alleviated these conflicts would be a better education system. And if striking is one way of trying to bring about those improvements, then so be it.

Which means that I’m striking for my kids. And I’m also on strike for yours.

And I’ll stand proud in doing it.

And for those who have chosen to cross the picket line, just one question: who are you really doing it for?

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Top Teachers Don't Teach

There is no more pernicious idea in education than the idea that teachers should not teach.

Of course, it is never stated as explicitly as this, and there will be those who will reject outright that this is where their ideas and methods lead, convinced that their own particular variant of this noxious ideology is not actually all that noxious nor really an ideology.

Most commonly, we hear it expressed in the benign sounding context of empowerment, a romantic liberation of the constricted child from the chains of the didact – no mere brick in the wall shall they be - free to spread their wings and work out for themselves the intricacies of the Trinity, or the photosynthetic process; teacher talk is bad, oppressive, a cruelty inflicted on blossoming flowers not created for the passivity necessary in the act of listening to someone else speak for a bit; it is student-led learning, the independent and the free, that is Good.

When phrased in such way, and with such moral certitude, the possibility that these ideas might be rejected on philosophical grounds, because they are bad ideas, or on pragmatic grounds, because they are not really very effective strategies, is alien. Better by far to assume the recalcitrant lacks confidence, or capability, or a soul.

Well, if you wish to play like that, let us turn the tables: if you genuinely cannot comprehend that people might oppose student-led learning on firmer grounds than their own character flaws, then you yourself are intellectually stunted. And the responsibility for addressing that is more yours than it is mine.

Truth be told, this whole student-led gig is nothing but the desire to diminish the role of the teacher. It might be delivered in pious power ballads, evoking tear-jerking personal testimony of how Bob in Year 9 once explained the intricacies of quantum mechanics more effectively than I, the teacher, ever could have managed, as if this is a cause for celebration rather than concern. But at root it says nothing more than this: we don’t really need an expert sat at the front of the class. Or anywhere else, really.

No, in reality we are just dispensible task-setters, useful only up until that point at which someone else comes along and delivers tasks with more and better whizz-bangery, or fills in admin records more efficiently, or is willing to do longer hours and more break duties.

Maybe this is the result of weary necessity: the de-skilling of the profession and the institutional morale hit that has come with it. Maybe it is that lingering ‘progressive’ ideology that always was uncomfortable with traditional hierarchies of power. Maybe it is just lethargy, a profession seeking to take the line of least resistance against an OFSTED that, for want of anything insightful to write, reaches for the ‘too much teacher talk’ when struggling to fill in the blank space on their lesson observation forms. Maybe it is a wilful misunderstanding of the nature of teacher talk – truly a piece of theatre when done well – or maybe it is the perceived kudos that comes from appearing to be in control by, well, giving away control, avoiding the responsibility conferred by authority by reconfiguring the demands of that responsibility and the nature of that authority. After all, student-led learning is all fluffy and nice, and one must be terribly self-assured to do that kind of thing, no?

That it might not be all that effective? Pah. You’re missing the point. And who asked you anyway?

I dish out my fair share of stick to the NewTraddie herd for blithely indulging in their own sloganeering and tilting at their own windmills, but one response that cannot really be denied is this: that beyond the realms of the digital NewTraddie Wonderland, the Blob reigns supreme.

And it’s still telling teachers they shouldn’t teach. And I’m not really sure what our kids have got to gain from that. 

Friday, 14 February 2014

Our Island (Cock and Bull) Story

One thing has to be said for post-Reformation propaganda - it has serious longevity. As I outlined a few weeks back in an article on anti-Catholic history, the myths and propaganda of the anti-Catholic narrative have become such common currency that, even after hundreds of years and patient refutation, they continue to be peddled as fact by those who might otherwise pride themselves on their erudition and intelligence. 

Well, as a handy example we have here Rev Pete Hobson, involved in organising the burial of Richard III, responding to the suggestion that integrity would demand that Richard III be given a Catholic ceremony;

'There’s been widespread misunderstanding on this point, which might be summed up in the way people use the word ‘Catholic’ when what they really mean is ‘Roman Catholic’. Richard lived before the Reformation when the very term Roman Catholic wasn’t in use – and all English Christians were Catholic, that is they all saw themselves as part of the one, world-wide church. But what is clear is that since the English Reformation, the Church of England is, in law, the true Catholic church of the land, in full continuity with the earlier generations. Moreover the churches Richard worshipped in are, where they still stand, the churches that now belong to the Church of England – and St Martins Cathedral is a case in point. It was there in King Richard’s time, and it’s still there now.

So of course our service will be catholic – how could it not be? But it won’t be Roman Catholic as such – a later innovation! [yep, he did just say that]. 

As far as historical and theological reasoning goes, that requires some serious mental gymnastics.  

Yet it’s not altogether new. Whilst fables can give succour, they will continue to be employed – let history, truth, be damned.

Which bring us to Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland, who is credited as having delivered such a rousing speech at his martyrdom as to have affected the conversion of several bystanders, including Margaret Clitherow, who would later become another of Queen Elizabeth’s victims (and, the legend goes, her unborn child too), martyred for her faith. Percy was offered his life for recanting, which he refused, and his speech proved something of an embarrassment for those seeking a propaganda coup from his recantation. The following comes from the Historical Papers of Blessed Thomas Percy, Vol. V:

"On this the Earl, turning towards the people, said : I should have been content to meet my death in silence, were it not that I see it is the custom for those who undergo this kind of punishment to address some words to the bystanders as to the cause of their  being put to death. Know, therefore, that, from my  earliest years down to this present day, I have held the Faith of that Church which, throughout the whole Christian world, is knit and bound together ; and that in this same Faith I am about to end this unhappy life. But, as for this new Church of England, I do not acknowledge it.

 Here Palmer [the protestant minister], interrupting him, cried out in a loud voice: “I see that you are dying an obstinate Papist ; a member, not of the Catholic, but of the Roman Church.” 

"To this the Earl replied : That which you call the Roman Church is the Catholic Church, which has been founded on the teaching of the Apostles, Jesus Christ Himself being its corner-stone, strengthened by the blood of Martyrs, honoured by the recognition of the holy Fathers ; and it continues always the same, being the Church against which, as Christ our Saviour said, the gates of Hell shall not prevail.”

Just what he said, Rev Pete. 

Friday, 3 January 2014

Teaching (anti-Catholic) History

For those who might be interested, this article of mine appeared in this week's print edition of the Catholic Herald:

If history is concerned with recounting the past, then integrity demands that it hold regard for truth. To admit otherwise is to relegate the historical to the whimsical demands of the present. 

William Cobbett, himself a Protestant, recognised this. While writing a history of the Reformation he repeatedly outlined the motivation for (and the manner in which) history had up until that point been distorted to tell a mischievous, anti-Catholic tale. Yet he also, at times, struck a surprisingly hopeful note. “But TRUTH is immortal,” he wrote, “and though she may be silenced for a while, there always, at last, comes something to cause her to claim her due and to triumph over falsehood.”

It is this pursuit of truth that must lie at the heart of the teaching of history in our schools. Sadly, it frequently does not. To recognise this is not to broach something new. Rather, it is to return once again a recurring theme. Indeed, in 1920 Catholics, including Belloc and Chesterton, gathered to discuss the problem of the teaching of history in our schools. Their assessment could be republished today as a more or less accurate account of the state of history teaching in our schools.

The social landscape has changed from the early 20th century, but not much. While wider cultural prejudices towards Catholics have receded, the bias that permeates our historical sense of being has not. Myths still abound: Catholic monarchs were uniquely brutal (post-Reformation that is – little is made of the Catholicism of the Coeur de Lion or King Alfred); Protestantism brought with it prosperity and freedom; and Catholics are not quite English – or, at least, their allegiances can be legitimately questioned. Whether it is in the telling of key events or in the evaluation of key figures, there exists a whole artifice of anti-Catholic orthodoxy which permeates popular culture.

This is not to say the bias is obvious. Anti-Catholic history is not in the explicit statement. It is far more subtle than that. The selection of sources, the weight given to particular events, the omission of key details, the general tone, the assumption of progress – all go to shape a very particular understanding of historical events. As things stand, popular school textbooks used in many schools perpetuate this subtly anti-Catholic history. The most obvious incidences can be brushed away, but the rest, seemingly innocuous, seep quietly into growing minds and disrupt any sense of continuity between our faith, our sense of who we are and that of our ancestors. 

Of course, one could easily respond that teachers should be countering anti-Catholic history as a matter of course, but that misunderstands the position in which many teachers often find themselves. First, it is not uncommon for history, particularly in the early years of secondary school, to be taught by non-specialists whose knowledge of key eras is limited.

Secondly, the subtlety of the anti-Catholic narrative is such that it can be perpetuated unwittingly, especially when this same anti-Catholic story is what most teachers will themselves have received during their own schooling.

Thirdly, teaching workload means that many teachers will simply not have the time to create such a huge store of plans, resources and materials, or indeed undertake the research required to begin to haul down some of the myths presented to us as truth. The temptation will be to use what is already present and seek to challenge any obvious issues as they occur.

There are wonderful historians, past and present, who can and do tell a different tale. Yet little of what they say gets much of a systematic airing in many of our history classrooms. This is because their accounts contravene the standard narrative and so provoke caution, limiting the likelihood of any publisher taking up the cause and thereby limiting wider broadcasting of such views. To question the established narrative is, after all, a political act; better to politely submit, or remain ignorant, than be deemed a reactionary. This is a tragedy, both for the neutral and disinterested pursuit of truth, but also from the Catholic perspective of equipping our young to counter a world that will misrepresent who we are, where we have come from and what we believe. 

Yet, as Eamon Duffy has argued, the established myths cannot hold – in the name of intellectual integrity, if nothing else. This might sound like a call for historical 'revisionism'. It is, rather, an appeal for our schools to increase awareness among our young of what Newman referred to as the fables and myths of the anti-Catholic record. The issue here is simply truth. It is, after all, our island story, too.

The Church in England and Wales has long helped to fund the development of resources and work schemes for the RE syllabus offered in Catholic schools. It might be time to focus attention on our history departments, too. Could the more eminent among our number collaborate to create high quality resources to challenge the anti-Catholic chronicles? We can only hope. But what is clear is that a sense of who we are is entwined with what we believe. And a more accurate sense of the former might just help us more effectively communicate the what and the why of the latter.

Michael Merrick is a teacher at a Catholic secondary school in Cumbria 

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Catholics between the (spread)sheets

In the last couple of days I’ve been chewing over some poll data published by YouGov, commissioned by Lancaster University and linked to the Westminster Faith Debates initiative, which popped on to my radar through a link to this article in the Tablet written by Linda Woodhead, who uses the data to makes claims about what most Catholics think ‘about sex, the family and ethical matters surrounding it.’
From the outset, it should be said Catholics and those who care about the Church should welcome studies like this, engaging with the information they reveal about our Church and our people.  Whilst we might, with the help of a certain Roman Prefect of Judaea, point out that Truth is not a thing determined by the numbers of those who assent to it, that doctrine is not developed or revised on the transient whims of plebiscites, nonetheless there are valuable lessons to be learned, be it for the catechist, or or the parish priest, or the church hierarchy generally. Numbers can, when reliable, add specific texture to what might otherwise remain a hunch - anything that might add substance to the usual cliché of ‘nobody believes x anymore’ ought to raise an eyebrow of interest.

And so we come to the polls, reported on by Professor Linda Woodhead, fast becoming the public authority on the country’s religious habits. The written report is detailed and fairly extensive, and generally confirms those societal trends and changes in attitudes about which we are regularly told, and of which most of us could acknowledge as probably broadly true.

So far, so uncontroversial.

And yet, on reading the article, one cannot help but feel that between the numbers and the conclusions drawn there exists an epistemic gap bridged with an interpretative vigour lacking in the sobriety one might expect to find in such a high profile piece of research. To declare an interest, I am a Roman Catholic: maybe it is the recusant DNA, but I’ve long been wary of accepting at face value any official information about who Catholics are and what they believe. Yet in this report, non-sequiturs and questionable inferences seem to jump out of the page quite apart from whether one is predisposed to look for them.

One holds back, of course, from accusing Woodhead of intentional bias, since there is no reason to doubt her integrity in these matters (though I’m inclined to think the Tablet would welcome such findings with analysis-free glee) – still, the eyes through which one looks will indubitably mould the way something looks. And if the overarching analysis of socio-religious climate is one of culture clash between the religiously orthodox and everyone else, then perhaps we ought to be sensitive to the possibility that such conclusions might just find themselves as the tease and temptress of the data analyst charged with interpreting the mass of numbers on a screen before them.

And so, to choose just a couple of examples, we read that, on the basis of the fact that almost three-quarters of British Catholics think sex is important for a fulfilled life, therefore ‘traditional teachings about the value of celibacy have largely been abandoned’. Really? Can that interpretation reasonably be drawn? Or again, ‘Marriage has ceased to be an essential element of the family in most Catholic minds, with only a quarter disapproving of unmarried couples raising children.’ Such a conclusion strikes one as being so obviously flawed that one wonders how it was able to be drawn in the first place. And there are numerous other examples where an interpretation might fit snugly into pre-existing assumption (‘ordinary Catholics ignore church teachings’), but cannot reasonably be drawn from the data presented in the article. It must be acknowledged, of course, that Woodhead is trying to distil large chunks of data into a small article, and so broad brush strokes are to an extent inevitable – but such statements are at least enough to encourage one to probe further rather than take such statements at face value.

At which point, other issues begin to appear.  For example, we are told that ‘Catholics also depart from church teaching when it comes to contraception: only 9 per cent say they would feel guilty using it, and 12 per cent of weekly churchgoers.’ That sounds fairly conclusive, fairly authoritative. But looking at the three polls commissioned, the only reference I can see to the issue of contraception is the first poll commissioned, of 4437 adults, of whom just 354 self-identified as Catholics. Of this 354, which was weighted up to 391, only 125 (of the weighted number) said they ‘currently engage in religious or spiritual practices with other people’ (which might not include Mass) and of whom 65 (weighted number) said they do this at least once a week (again, which might not include Mass).

Thus, use of the phrase of ‘weekly churchgoers’ is already a doubtful one, whilst the broader claim being made is substantiated by the responses of just 57 people.

One need not be a looking for mischief, or even questioning the truth of the broader argument (that most Catholics do not follow church teachings on contraception), to point out that as far as evidential basis goes that really is wafer thin.

Of course, such claims might be given the weight of other studies, and indeed of generally accepted social norms, enough to allow a certain amount of confidence in reporting them in such robust terms. But that in itself can lead one to question the moderation of the reporting. And if a suspicion exists of a certain exuberance in dealing with the numbers and what they tell us, then it is only heightened when one notes some of the language used: we read, for example, that differences on sexual ethics is a ‘rift runs right through the Catholic population in Britain, isolating a minority who hold fast to the current official teaching from a majority who do not. [my emphasis]’

Setting aside the already questionable phrase ‘current official teaching’, and letting slide the fairly provocative description of those who remain orthodox Catholics, it must be noted that any talk of a rift, age-correlated or otherwise, is more of an insight into the one reading the numbers than anything else – to make such a causal link is entirely unwarranted.  Indeed, perhaps it is the use of that word, ‘rift’, which best encapsulates the question of whether Woodhead’s interpretations come from the prior acceptance of a culture war narrative - it evokes an image of people in the pews being engaged in personal conflict with one another about the truth and observance of fundamental church doctrines, with all the younger liberal folk on one side, and older conservatives on the other. In my experience at least, this is simply not true (the only ever issue on which I have experienced anything even remotely similar is the issue of liturgy).

Most people in most pews simply don’t know what most other people in most pews believe about most things. To say there is a rift is to either misuse the word, with its related connotations, or to submit lived reality to the expectations of a macro-level sociocultural analysis. And all that on the basis of some pretty feeble numbers (the questions that make up the sexual ethics category largely appear in the two general polls, which have small Catholic numbers, and even smaller active Catholic numbers, and are largely absent, curiously, from the poll aimed specifically at Catholics.)

One can speculate as to why that might be, but for those slowly inclining toward suspicions of bias, unwitting or otherwise, then the wording of some of the questions asked is unlikely to disabuse the cynic of such a notion. For example, in the third poll aimed specifically at Catholics, two of the questions which might conceivably, though tangentially, be linked to any category on sexual ethics (Catholic adoption agencies and the Peter Hazelmary Bull B&B case), are so appallingly worded (and factually inaccurate)and so obviously weighted toward a particular response that they should be classed as junk, with no conclusions to be drawn from them (*see below). Indeed, when a question is so hostile to a presumed target, one really cannot but help question either the motives, or the unwitting but thorough bias, of those asking the question. Peter Hitchens once said that polls were often used to drive public opinion, not inform people about what it is. I suspect that this data is a case in point.

And so, whilst the polls make interesting reading, they must also be approached with an element of caution - one would surely be foolish to draw too many concrete conclusions from them, despite the authority one might expect of data coming from a well-funded and high profile organisation, publishing their research in mainstream media. When probed, the data can tell different stories, stories which will, of course, never be told. We also see, for example, that those who identify as humanist/secularist are more likely to feel bad about contraception, support gender segregation in worship and education, and feel guilty about premarital sex than Christians are. We see that Labour voters are more like than any else to look for support or guidance from God or a higher power when making crucial decisions, and we see that euroscepticism seems to be the preserve of the less well qualified in educational terms. Lastly, we see that only Londoners think society has got better since 1945, whilst most of the rest of us think it has got worse.

All of which I’ll take with a pinch of salt. Except for the last one, which pretty much confirms my pre-existing biases. And if I was so inclined, I might even jump on it to substantiate those pre-existing biases, using it to reinforce a narrative I have long cultivated, about London getting all the best of everything whilst the rest of us get shafted. ‘See!’, I’d say, ‘I bloody told you southerners were spoiled – this proves they’re smug about it too. I was right all along. We need to abolish London.’ But then, that would be a questionable conclusion. Drawn from a questionable interpretation. Drawn from a distinctly squiffy evidence base. 

*Q1 - Do you think that bed-and-breakfast (B&B) owners should or should not be allowed to refuse accommodation to people based on their sexuality?


Q2 - In 2008, a gay couple were refused entry to a bed-and-breakfast on grounds of their sexuality based on the Christian beliefs of the owners. The bed-and-breakfast owners have since been ordered by the courts to pay damages of £3,600 to the couple. Do you think it was right or wrong that the bed-and-breakfast owners were ordered to pay damages to the couple?

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Teaching RE

So, the latest way in which schools have failed children has been revealed today, clear as it now is that standards of teaching in Religious Education, and the teaching of Christianity in particular, are well below any minimum expected standard.

As one might expect, the more excitable tribalists have jumped immediately on their mounts and declared TOTAL WAR on Michael Gove, uniquely responsible as he is for the falling standards that have been identified at various points over the last few decades or so. Whilst it cannot really be denied that his reforms have had the kind of impact on RE that just about everybody said they would, nonetheless Gove is more harbinger than the Doom itself. He may well have made it easier for schools to drop RE – but that schools should wish to do so is nothing for which Michael Gove can be held culpable.

No, the reason RE is expendable is because RE has made itself expendable, being racked with an existential uncertainty regarding the value and indeed justification of its very soul. RE is too often the Woody Allen of the school curriculum, the gallic shrug of the school timetable: like apologising when someone else bumps into us, it is that part of schooling which we do without quite knowing why, before apologising again for the uncertainty. In short, RE has become a subject of which the majority are fundamentally unsure – of what it is and what we are trying to achieve in delivering it.

To formulate some kind of response, or rather tentative explanation, a degree of commonality with non-RE comrades must be acknowledged -  just like many other subjects, RE is racked with indecision on whether our goal is to teach students how to know, or what to know. What forms the fault lines between ‘progressives’ and ‘traditionalists’ throughout the curriculum plays out acutely in the RE classroom – though of course with extra hand wringing. Obviously. And you can bet those hands and that wringing will be Fair Trade. Probably.

Which brings us to popular conceptions of what RE actually is. For some, especially prevalent amongst those who don’t teach it, RE is just citizenship with some colourful festivals thrown in. It is there for us to study all about these religious types of whom we have heard tell, with success defined by how well such teachings helps create that kind of textbook civic society to be found primarily in the wet dreams of PPEers. This approach is already institutionally detached from, and condescending toward, those who hold religious belief, treating their subjects as curious artefacts in much the same manner that colonial navigators viewed their fur-clad, machete-wielding charges before writing home to their countrymen about how we must seek to protect and understand these primitive cultures.

Mary Bousted, General Secretary of the ATL (and supporter of the Accord Coalition/Secular Society Lite), summed up this this citizenship-lite approach in saying that RE is ‘vital for our young people so that they understand the role of religion and belief in society.’

Well, when you put it so seductively as that Mary…

Yet, in fairness to Bousted, she is only reaffirming the standard presumptions of many in the political and educational echelons. Which illustrates the irony: whereas OFSTED now pose as the warrior guardians of rigour in RE, it was they who helped set it on its current course by placing such emphasis on 90s buzzwords like ‘diversity’, ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘community cohesion’. And what OFSTED wanted OFSTED got –a touch of humility might just be in order before the Finger of Shame gets pointed at teachers suddenly finding themselves on the wrong end of an unexpected step-change.

However, the identity crisis goes further than just this. If the influence of the political classes turned RE into the propaganda arm of the Ministry for A Lovely Civic Society, so the academy must shoulder its own portion of blame. Indeed it is the academy, more than any government, which has given RE an identity crisis the likes of which would leave the average postmodernist looking overly dogmatic.

For too long, RE teaching has been beset by pedagogical presumptions that strike at the very heart what RE ought to be about. Just as JFK reassured a prejudiced public that he had the schizophrenic capacity to indelibly separate faith and the political, so teachers arriving on their training courses have been for too long bombarded into believing that RE can only be delivered through a pedagogical version of the same. To do otherwise is ethically dubious, or intellectually dubious, or probably both, and whilst we’re at it you’re probably not safe to be left with kids anyway, a kind of teaching Pied Piper of Waco just waiting to indoctrinate children and lead them away from the safety of secular presumption.

And this secular presumption is the largely unchallenged King of the academy. It sees itself as the guardian of neutrality and disinterested pursuit of knowledge. For those who ascribe to it, this approach opens up the airwaves to the crowing chorus of religious diversity, allowing us to dispassionately pluck the juiciest fruits of each. That such an approach might not be neutral, nor indeed disinterested, is rarely countenanced: that it might severely limit understanding considered a heresy. No, the terms of debate are clear – you either accept scholarly secularity or you are dogmatic/fundamentalist/bigoted (delete as appropriate).

Which is a touch inconvenient for those of us who insist such a paradigm is reductive and distorts true understanding and, indeed, authentic exploration of religion and the metaphysical. After all, how can one really inhabit the sacral heart of religious belief if one has, from the outset, detached oneself from the validity of its truth claims? In RE it has become normal to reject the heart of the religious instinct precisely in the name of better grasping it. It is the equivalent of teaching students about football by giving them the rules of rugby.

The outcome is that RE either becomes the loose conglomeration of trite clichés that fail to connect with students on anything like a personal or experiential level, or else turns into a self-consciously (though false) philosophical approach which fetishizes the act of thinking whilst being negligent in the duty to develop thought. Which is why RE has the tendency to oscillate between feel-good touchy-feely slogans or beard-stroking sessions designed to inflate the ego more than the intellect. 

Some RE teachers genuinely think that in pursuing this approach, within these secular paradigms, they are opening minds, precisely by encouraging their charges to abandon (or sideline) any relational or intellectual context within which they may embed understand of the complex themes that decent RE teaching must necessarily tackle head on. Where this occurs, we hear the buzzwords of intellectual superiority that has followed the secularist approach round ever since those with many letters after their name decided to teach those without many letters after their name that this was what all clever people thought. 

We hear words like 'critical', and 'analysis', and 'evaluation', but the very foundation upon which such activities can take place is a mere chimera, asking as it does that the student to affirm a prior rejection of what it is that that which they study demand they take existential account of. We ask students to adopt a mindset that every single one of the religions that they study would reject at the most fundamental level. If that sounds bonkers, it is because it is. 

As such, this is not the development of thought but the teaching of a sterilised skill, which in the end becomes more like a game of blind man’s buff – asking an eleven year old to walk into a classroom and choose their favourite metaphysical vantage point, on the basis of they-know-not-what-and-grasp-not-yet criteria. We might as well offer a monolingual child a selection of twelve texts written in different languages, before asking them to choose their favourite translation. Can it be any wonder that for so many children RE seems detached from real life, even though it is in RE that one ostensibly encounters those things that will shape many a life and love over the course of a lifetime.

For this reason, some argue that confessional RE still has a role to play, not to create devout soldiers of God but to facilitate precisely this critical mindset – it gives a skeletal framework upon which to grow understanding, to pin criticism, to explore complexities and develop critique, precisely by hanging on and against viewpoints already interiorised.  To do so is the difference between throwing a punch at fresh air and aiming one at a particular target. Or to put it glibly, for demonstration, the RE teacher who seeks to explain Sukkot by comparison with Harvest better be sure students grasp the depths of Harvest – and if the very language and grammar of thankfulness and fasting is alien to a student’s understanding of life, then we need to acknowledge that RE has failed to do its job, and stop asking students to answer vanity questions about which festival they prefer and why.

In short, asking that an RE teacher can teach from the inside rather than the outside, indeed that RE is initially taught from the inside rather than the outside, can have its benefits – not only does it guarantee that the teacher is a genuine specialist, but it is also a more productive and rigorous framework for critical thought than the false presumptions that currently beset RE pedagogical orthodoxy.  

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Twigg and Hardworking Families

‘Liberalism is alive and it’s killing us.’ Maurice Glasman.

Teachers have long been acutely aware that schools are expected to cure the ills of the society in which they operate, whilst simultaneously being at fault for their existence in the first place. Schools, you see, are solely responsible for the development of our children, so when anything goes wrong it must be because schools have not taught x, or because they have taught y, or because they’re institutionally opposed to z, and so forth. There was a time when schools were deemed to exist in order to assist parents in the education of their children. For our political classes at least, that time has long gone  - a consensus has emerged that schools exist to actually parent our children, too.

As I pointed out a few weeks ago when Michael Gove announced his plans to further nationalise parenting, were he to receive anything like a critical analysis from his own benches then ‘small c conservatives’ would have been implacably opposed to plans to turn schools into childcare units, complete with longer days, shorter holidays, summer camps and sleepovers. They would see that Gove had once again overstepped the line between parental responsibility and state assistance, and been suspicious of the pious cries of ensuring kids ‘get a good start’ or helping families ‘juggle family life and work commitments’.  As I argued then, were this proposed a decade ago by a government of the left it would have been greeted with wild speculations as to the sinister intent of the state wishing to insert itself further into family life, inching further toward the nationalisation of parenting.

Well, Stephen Twigg, never one to knowingly oppose the substance of any Govian doctrine, has chosen to follow in his idol’s loafered wake.  For Twigg, schools are not places to educate children, but childcare facilities where children also get educated. This means that schools should be supporting families by ensuring their own organisation doesn’t make life any more difficult for the needs of their customers. So far, so tiresomely predictable – one liberal supporting the analysis of another. But in so doing, Twigg demonstrates the extent to which the current Labour crop have long given up the intellectual fight with that which they claim to oppose.

And so, in the interests of keeping the markets serviced with reliable labour, Twigg thinks the state should take on more parenting, since the demands of parenting are after all inconvenient for the employers of those who were self-absorbed enough to have had children in the first place.  In a world where people have to work longer for diminishing returns, fewer and fewer have the economic freedom to reject the call of the factory floor. Twigg’s response? Use the power of the state to ensure that any lingering impediments to that call are removed or mitigated.  

This is not the Labour tradition as I know it. Labour of old recognised the central importance of the family and looked for ways to facilitate the flourishing of it, not bypass it as an inconvenience to an employer. Indeed, Labour once criticised what it then referred to as ‘the capitalist system’ precisely in the name of defending the family from the demands of the market system. Or as one tweeter neatly put it, Twigg seeks to help ‘hardworking families’ by concentrating on the working rather than the family.
To be fair to Twigg, Labour have form on this – they have long thought helping the family is achieved by paying for parents to spend less time with it. It’s why that huge swathe of people who desperately wish they had the freedom to choose to spend time at home with their kids find little solace in Labour, entirely focused as they are on making external childcare cheaper instead.

And as with all irony, there is an element of delusion in this: Labour genuinely seem to think that in offering such a solution they are putting themselves on the side of working people. Mr Twigg says as much himself: ‘This will give all parents of primary school children the certainty that they can access childcare from 8am-6pm through their school. A clear message to hard working parents: Labour is on your side.’ Unless, of course, those hardworking parents happen to wish they didn’t have to work so bloody hard and miss their children growing up as a consequence. Indeed, the mournful lament of parents wishing they could spend less time with family and more time at work is all one hears at the school gates. Well, drinks all round: their prayers have been answered today.

If ever there was a bogeyman capitalist, a snarling, moustachioed, pocketwatch checking factory owner who resented the existence of anything that might stop workers from being co-opted into ever longer hours on the factory floor, then that man would be sending a thank you note to Mr Twigg right now. One gets the impression that were a contemporary Bob Cratchit to complain about having to work on Christmas Day, Mr Twigg might just think the best way to support him would be to abolish Christmas.

Of course, this will matter little to Twigg – he has convinced himself that this is what will help families, trapped as he is within a liberal paradigm that sees the duties and commitments that real life brings with it as inconveniences to be overcome rather than the things that given any meaning to life whatsoever. No, freedom is the freedom to work, which means freedom from any obstacle to doing so, to becoming a productive economic unit, to helping Britain get ‘back on track’.  And those staff, most likely low paid, who will end up staffing the school during the extended opening hours, seeing less of their own family as a result, are collateral to that – but then, Labour has long become comfortable in using the low paid to service its liberalism.

And so we have it, that on the same day that Ed Miliband announced that his vision of education is the precise opposite of Michael Gove’s, Stephen Twigg issues details of a speech whereby he not only embraces a Govian policy of his own, but accepts wholesale the analysis to which it is a response. A Tory Education Secretary that wishes to further nationalise parenting sharing an analysis and a proposed solution with a Labour shadow Education Secretary that wants to put the demands of market over the demands of loved ones.

And they say they’re all the same, eh?

Monday, 2 September 2013

Postliberal Paralysis

Reading through David Goodhart’s recent Standpoint article the other day, an old irony lying at the heart of the postliberal impulse presented itself once more – those who represent the views of a great number all too often find themselves presented as extreme and outside the mainstream.

When Goodhart decided to turn his critical eye on the assumptions that lay behind the support of mass immigration, he would have had the instinctive support of many a Labour voter – and yet he acted as a lone wolf, a cry in the wilderness provoking a reaction that would have (and often did) encourage many other a sceptic to keep their head down. 

All of which gives the impression that any challenge to the liberal establishment is itself the action of either a defunct intellect or a defunct soul. And so, years since this (still-)emerging critique of liberalism began to find expression (I’d go back generations, but for the sake of argument…), there yet exists no discernible outlet for its expression beyond the courage of the few who are granted a (usually hostile) audience. Those who take on the mantle of agitating against the zeitgeist mostly find themselves calling out to a loose and anonymous coalition of the aggrieved. And with it another irony: a group of folk who instinctively cherish institutions have proven useless at reclaiming and, more pressingly, generating them.

Which means that for those who find postliberalism articulating something close to their own concerns, there are no discernible structures through which to channel their energy – no mere coincidence, then, that postliberalism often identifies with and shares the assumptions and concerns of precisely that group of people who have long abandoned politics in despair. Zeal of the converted wasted, resilience of the believer squandered.

And so postliberalism loses its relational edge, possessing no formal organ (for it is not a formal movement) for engaging or galvanising those, of many a political hue, who share their analysis. That group who instinctively appeal to the relational as an alternative account of the social and the civic yet have no wider structure to generate and facilitate relations between those of a similar mind. For any individual critical of mainstream liberal presumption, establishing connections with the similarly-minded is a minefield with real consequences for misjudging a situation and expressing a heretical opinion (small example: the amount of people I know, of both genders, who are critical of AWS yet dare not utter it publicly). Perhaps we postliberals, then, need our own version of the Ichthys. Perhaps we should look to create it.

Of course, the very nature of the postliberal outlook means that the criteria for success are somewhat different from the standard political trinkets signifying orthodox power and influence. Whilst one might become frustrated at the manner in which challenges to liberal presumption are still presented as the quirks of the mad or mean, nonetheless valuable work is taking place reconnecting with grassroots, influencing particular kinds of institutions from the ground upwards, forging relationships around a vision of what would make life better. This, understandably, stays below the media radar.

Yet higher structures and organisations are important too, from the perspective of both civic society and political calculation. After all, it is through institutions that one reaffirms an existence within, and commitment to, the civic and those initiatives designed to enhance it, as well as constructing a shelter from which to challenge lazy liberal presumption in a manner less akin to sending Daniel wandering, lonely, into the Lion’s Den. Some are cut out for that, and will reappear unharmed to influence the wider debate, but not all are, and might rediscover their voice, and their interest, in the company of the like-minded.

And so the Long March must commence, both through the institutions and, where they do not exist, through new ones. And since liberalism is at the core of the three mainstream parties, so its intellectual critique draws support from all political traditions and none. But then, that’s the nature of a movement – establishing communities of interest that unite a diverse range of folk in pursuit of a better alternatives to those currently available. All of which those who identify as postliberal instinctively understand.  Meaning that the postliberal paralysis might just be cured by putting into practice its very own insights.   

Friday, 23 August 2013

Culture Clash Continues

An interesting article here from James Bloodworth, closely echoing something I wrote for LabourList back in 2009 on the culture clash between the ‘progressive’ left and the core voters they claim to represent (see below for some other links). The article is not so much interesting because of content – it repeats an analysis that has cropped up in various places over the years – but rather the context of its saying: an editor of LeftFootForward, for a long time considered a ‘progressive’ stronghold, writing in the Staggers.

Whilst such progress is to be welcomed, it does bring with it its own set of problems. At the most basic level, for an idea to shape the direction of the party the establishment of that party must buy in to it – as such, the inquiry is necessarily limited to the comfort zones of those conducting the analysis (indeed Bloodworth’s own analysis, when it mentions specifics, is predictably narrow). With coaxing and polling they might be willing to make concessions in certain areas, but other issues do not even appear on the radar. And to try to put them on the radar brings with it only the certainty that one will be ignored on the grounds of being self-evidently racist/xenophobic/bigoted etc.

To exacerbate the problem, engagement with the party on a local level too often offers little opportunity for the excluded: the arteries are clogged up. Those that Labour recognise they have alienated are not the kind of people who tend to advance through the party, either by selection or appointment. Those who are opposed to the traditional views of what is in effect the Labour dalit class generally are the kind of people who advance through the party, both by selection and appointment.  Or to use Bloodworth’s terms, the old grassroots might well be socially conservative, but it is highly unlikely that any such individual would gain any position that would allow such views to be honestly represented, whilst those who expend such effort in shouting them down regularly do so. As such, even in the event of recognition of this representation deficit, there is unlikely to be any concerted action to address it – it remains a fact to be confronted that it was/is during the ‘diversity years’ that the Labour Party has become so very ideologically narrow.

All of which means that Labour has gotten itself into an odd position. Their historical mission to exterminate the conditions that gave it existence has morphed into a determination to harass the views of the kind of people that brought it into existence (views oftentimes still held by the very people they now need to keep them in meaningful existence). And it can hardly come as a surprise that someone routinely labelled a bigot for holding an opinion despised by a liberal activist core is hardly likely to get up early on a weekend and deliver leaflets. Indeed, relying on tribalism to pull in support, itself dependent on once interlinking identities that the ‘progressive’ turn has smashed, only appeals to loyalties that no longer exist: so much so that left-wing folk can hold their noses and vote for UKIP, despite their economic views, as the best of a wholly ill-fitting range of alternatives.

And so we have a standoff, where one must question whether those with their hands on the levers of power are even capable of engaging honestly with the viewpoints of those whom they have alienated. But that the recognition of a culture clash is gaining mainstream currency must itself be a limited source of encouragement – one can only hope it is not too much longer until more determined steps are taken to confront it. 

If you're really bored...

Post-liberalism, post-Labour?

Progressive Extremism

Labour Values – only ‘progressives’ need apply

Labour and the Progressives

Balancing interests – or muzzling the progressives

Purnell: social conservatism and Labour

Like our parents and grandparents before us

Abbott speaks the wrong language

Ed the Illiberal Ideologue? 

Prejudice and the patriotic poor

Sunday, 11 August 2013

On (not) Learning to Teach

There is something of an irony in contemporary education debate, certainly the online variety, in that discussion is nearly always about skills. In as much as this is the case, the vanguard of the educational revolution often sounds very much like those they’re meant to replace, becoming devotees of an idea or method that can be transposed seamlessly from one classroom to another.  This is understandable, of course, since in a forum with representatives from every subject the common ground clearly exists on the generic skills front, and so it makes sense to discuss it. In addition, it is genuinely useful – after all, learning more about how to teach can only be a good thing, right?

Well, it depends at what price. For example, am I best developing my effectiveness by reading the latest John Hattie book, or the latest Norman Davies? Which is best for my students, that I read the latest Encyclical, or the latest article by Daniel Willingham? Does my teaching get better with debating residual scores on the latest report on the effectiveness of direct instruction, or in a detailed discussion with a specialist on the social, religious and political contexts that framed the ‘Glorious’ Revolution(/Revolt)? The answer is not straightforwardly one or the other – but in my experience, teacher debate and, crucially (I will return to this), professional development, far more often focuses on the former than the latter – at times, even at the expense of the latter.

Now, to save the hernias of the excitable who at this point feel compelled to jump up and down shouting ‘FALSE DICHOTOMY!’, I fully accept that this is not zero-sum. Equally, time is finite for the finite. And we teachers, marvellous as we are, are nonetheless finite beings. Meaning that the spare time we have can only have a certain amount fit into it. And as many will testify, this time is never enough. Some of the more thoughtful souls even make this point by tweeting pictures of all those books they still have to read, lolz.  

Still, the point remains: in spending so much energy and effort getting up to speed, and keeping up to speed, with how to teach, an essential focus on what to teach can become lost.

And this is something I have noticed. As my career has progressed, I feel I have become less and less well versed in my chosen subjects. My knowledge feels like it has become a static body comfortably regurgitated, whereas it was once an evolving and organic thing. And the main reason for this is time: I no longer have the time to develop my knowledge as I once did. And I’d wager that this is true for the vast majority of teachers. Which is fine if the subject is reasonably static, but not so much when it isn’t. And whilst this process is taking place, I tend to wonder if I’m becoming a less effective practitioner.  Spoiler: probably.

Which brings us to attitudes in education. It is perfectly right that we insist on subject specialists and subject specialism – it is also perfectly bonkers to think this is something that is completed prior to becoming a teacher, and not an ongoing process which runs alongside it. In other words, perhaps we don’t insist enough.

To pull the lens out a bit, workload issues, and the current fashion for teachers with a single-minded dedication to teaching, has meant that having outside interests is increasingly a luxury many cannot afford. It has become the norm to allow teaching to trump all other commitments one might have or wish to have (which can even include family, by the way – it’s not healthy).  Whilst such frenzied dedication might seem, on the face of it, to be A Good Thing, something essential is nonetheless lost: the ability of the teacher to bring the outside world into the classroom; to sniff out external opportunities for students that they might never come across whilst cloistered away in the teaching community; to develop their own knowledge through the pursuit of private interests and in so doing, become better teachers. On a personal level, opportunities that I could (and did) provide when I first entered teaching have disappeared with those networks which fell by the wayside precisely because of the all-consuming nature of the job – is this better?

This can easily be viewed, of course, as a tad indulgent – one can immediately see the relevance of reading the latest research on peer assessment, but attend a lecture on English Jacobitism? You’re having a laugh. That is something that you should be doing in your private time. Only…

And so we complete the circle, with both time and fashion making it increasingly difficult to be the rounded professionals, indeed rounded people, which the best teachers must surely be. Perhaps, then, during our holidays we should take a break from learning how to teach, and go do other non-teaching things. It might just make us better teachers. 

Poll on the career ambitions of past students

Interesting little survey from Opinium, asking questions of UK school leavers regarding their memories of certain aspects of their school life.

Whilst some of the questions are silly, probably designed to secure a headline (congratulations BBC) there were a couple of good questions, especially regarding what career the respondents wished to pursue in school.

And the results make for some interesting reading (with caveats).

For example, not one single respondent in the whole of the North East wished to be a Lawyer, or Writer, or Doctor, or Architect (this compares with 6%, 3%, 6% and 1% in London). There were very noticeable generational swings in the popularity of some professions (Doctor and Lawyer becoming more desirable) and the unpopularity of others (Nursing in particular). There are also some interesting gender differences, with boys much more likely to wish to be engineers than girls, but girls much more likely to seek to be a vet.

Of course, one could posit  variety of social contexts to explain the results, and things like these are so varied that they are universally susceptible to confirmation bias. In addition, the poll is very small and, well, it's a poll, which already means that those who would draw out great moral lessons about The State of Modern Britain today needs to sit down and have a herbal tea.

Even so, worth a few minutes reading and reflection. The poll is available here.