Politics & Society

You Can't Picture This

Thousands of UK residents have signed a petition against a law preventing photography and filming in certain public places. Yet this all turned out to be a misunderstanding, and no such law was proposed. Rajesh investigates the way we view the lens and the way it views us.

via Tom.


In the UK, "aspirations are [still] rooted in class"

Last week, The Sutton Trust released details of their research into the university destinations of school-leavers:

New research by the Sutton Trust into the university destinations of more than one million students over the past five years highlights the dominance of admissions to the country's leading universities by a small number of schools, mainly fee paying. The Trust is committing a minimum of £10 million over the next five years to widen access to these universities and is calling on others to join the cause and to support innovative new projects which will increase the number of entrants from non-privileged backgrounds.

The study - University admissions by individual schools - is the first to analyse in detail admission rates between 2002 and 2006 for 3,700 individual schools and colleges on the UCAS admissions database. It shows that:

  • 100 elite schools (less than three percent of all schools and colleges offering post 16 qualifications) accounted for a third of admissions to Oxbridge
  • At the 30 most successful schools, one quarter of university entrants went to Oxbridge
  • 100 elite schools accounted for over a sixth of admissions to the 'Sutton 13' group of leading, research-led universities

Over 80% of these elite schools are in the independent sector, which accounts for 7% of the school-age population.

The analysis reveals that these trends cannot be attributed to A-level results alone:

  • The proportion of university entrants going to Oxbridge from the top performing 30 independent schools was nearly twice that of the top performing 30 grammar schools -- despite having very similar average A-level scores.
  • At the 30 top performing comprehensive schools, only half the expected pupils were admitted to the 13 Sutton Trust universities, given the overall relationship between schools' average A-level results and university admissions.
  • At the 30 top performing independent schools, however, a third more pupils than expected were admitted to the 13 Sutton Trust universities, given the overall relationship between schools' average A-level results and university admissions.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Trust, writing in today's Sunday Times (his words are quoted in this post's title):

According to our research, parents in professional and managerial occupations believe that their children will go on to take A-levels, to attend good universities and end up in high-paying careers. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those in lower-paid jobs, by contrast, are likely to think that their children will leave school at 16 and go into routine employment. You might think the classroom would act as a corrective. But all too often low expectations are reinforced by our socially selective school system.

… social mobility has declined in Britain and we languish at the bottom of the international league table. Also, the relationship between children’s educational performance and their family background is stronger here than anywhere else in the developed world. If you are born poor, your qualifications will reflect the fact and you will remain poor.

Raising the aspirations of young people – as well as parents and teachers – is half the battle. The Sutton Trust is trying. We work with children in the early years, through school and into further and higher education, to provide the sort of support and encouragement to non-privileged youngsters that better-off families and high-achieving schools provide as a matter of course. More is needed. Why not open up leading private and state schools to those from non-privileged backgrounds, as has been done successfully at the Belvedere school in Liverpool and Pate’s in Cheltenham? We should learn from successful schools and extend the opportunities they offer to all. Children’s futures should not be down to luck: we must ensure that all young people have access to real educational opportunities.

The Sutton Trust repays attention. Its 2005 report, 'The Educational Backgrounds of Members of the House of Commons and House of Lords', is available here (pdf); also from 2005, 'The Educational Backgrounds of the UK’s Top Solicitors, Barristers and Judges', here (pdf); from 2006, 'The Educational Backgrounds of Leading Journalists', here (pdf); and the full report referred to above, 'University Admissions by Individual Schools', is here (pdf). Finally, from their News & Features page, there's a news bulletin of their latest research into the educational backgrounds of 500 leading people in the UK.

Some moves afoot — St Paul's (where I teach) has committed itself to going needs-blind, and Marlborough College (where I once taught) has established a link with Swindon Academy that 'will loan staff, share expertise and provide facilities' (BBC):

The partnership between the two schools will include linking some departments and supporting the establishment of a new sixth form at the academy. They will share relevant expertise - in areas such as sport or performing arts - to develop joint ventures which would benefit young people in both establishments.


Never mind the 70s, watch out for the 90s

Read Momus yesterday on how the 70s might come back for a second time, but probably won't. Woke up this morning to hear IDS on 'the family' (BBC link here). Well, we've been there before!

So thinking about that made me dig out something Stephen Fry wrote for The Spectator (Diary), commenting on the rise and rise of 'family values' as a core part of the 'agenda' of Conservative politicians:

It has become impossible now to utter a sentence without the barons of the new trendiness insisting on the inclusion of the words 'standards', 'individual', 'values', 'responsibility' and 'family'. It doesn't matter in what order they occur or what meaningless nonsense they denote, the words must dominate what statesmen like to call our 'agenda'. Eight years ago I wrote an article in the Listener wondering at the half-cocked stupidity of politicians displaying such impertinence. The trendy belief in family values had already been going for a good seven years by then and there seems even now to be no end in sight. Nobody minds that the Conservative governments of the last 15 years have contained at least six adulterers and two homosexuals at cabinet level and dozens more on the back-benches. If these men want mistresses, love-children and boyfriends, then good luck to them. The British are a decent, tolerant and friendly people and like to see their fellow citizens enjoying themselves in a kindly, responsible and adult way. What really gets our goat is when these same men and their colleagues stand on podia in seaside towns at Party Conference time and tell us how to behave in private; what causes us pain and indignation is to hear them lecture the nation about the virtues of the family and deride those of us who prefer not to have our moral horizons dictated by the Daily Mail. The Family: that noble institution responsible for 70 per cent of all murders, over 80 per cent of incidents of child abuse and a full 100 per cent of all cases of incest.

Date? 13 November, 1993.

Into this stream of consciousness there came a discussion thread on ORG-discuss, focusing on this, 'Oral Answers to Questions: Home Department' (House of Commons, Monday, 9 July 2007) — on Internet Service Providers. Excerpt:

Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire, Conservative):

Although I welcome the Home Secretary's comments, does she agree that it is a tragedy that what used to be the place where childhood innocence was protected and preserved—the home—is now often the place where it is corrupted and destroyed?

In the ORG thread, Suw quotes the indispensable danah boyd (quoted in a piece dated from midway through last year):

Unfortunately, predators lurk wherever youth hang out. Since youth are on MySpace, there are bound to be predators on MySpace. Yet, predators do not use online information to abduct children; children face a much higher risk of abduction or molestation from people they already know – members of their own family or friends of the family. Statistically speaking, kids are more at risk at a church picnic or a boy scout outing than they are when they go on MySpace. Less than .01% of all youth abductions nationwide are stranger abductions and as far as we know, no stranger abduction has occurred because of social network services.

Romanticising the past, or an institution, and demonising technology won't help anyone.

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David Miliband: 'a new age of social activism'

In two recent speeches, UK politicians are beginning to show they understand the web. First, George Osborne. And now, David Miliband:

When we think of education, we tend to think of formal teaching in classrooms by teachers.  This remains important.  But the range of resources to support learning is far wider than that - from workplaces and museums to individuals with skills to contribute, and passions to share. They lie beyond the school gates and they are 24/7. And the key to genuine educational transformation is inspiring children and adults to learn more for themselves – what Yeats called ‘lighting a fire’ as opposed to ‘filling a pail’.  So the challenge is to connect people with skills and time to give, from university students, part-time employees and people in retirement, to others with similar passions and interests.  ‘Every citizen a teacher’ may be a bit of a stretch, but it is not impossible to imagine an educational world where a large minority of citizens play an active role, either on a voluntary or paid basis in supporting learners as personal tutors, running after-school clubs, or integrated into the curriculum and the classroom. The web can create the potential to aggregate the dispersed supply of citizen-teachers and connect them to learners with particular interests. It can also help learners filter the good from the bad through peer to peer recommendations and make sense of a world where educational resources are much more diverse.

And much more besides: 'I believe the businesses and government that succeed in the future will be those that give people greater power to shape the future of their individual lives and greater capacity to collaborate. A sense of I can and we can.'

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Voting Conservative?

As a rider to my last post, I've just read and enjoyed Andrew Rawnsley writing in today's Observer:

It has been one of David Cameron's best insights about the Conservative party that it is not going to be more attractive to 21st-century Britain until it starts to look more like 21st-century Britain. He is a middle-aged, white old Etonian. He wants and needs a Tory party that looks and sounds a lot less like him.

George Osborne celebrated the growth of websites and online political networks originating from Conservative quarters. Rawnsley, commenting on the sacking of Patrick Mercer:

In the wake of the sacking, I've cruised around a few Conservative blogs. It's dirty work, but someone has got to do it on your behalf. There's a lot of Tory fury that Colonel Mercer was taken out and shot. Opinion is running heavily in sympathy with the MP for Newark and strongly against David Cameron, who is accused of sacrificing 'a good man' to the forces of 'political correctness gone mad', to quote one of the less rabid contributions in the right-wing blogosphere. This illustrates what the Tory leader is up against. Large chunks of his party cannot grasp either the reasons of principle or the imperatives of politics that meant Patrick Mercer had to be removed from the Tory front bench.

And I don't think there's much to add to this:

Is he [Patrick Mercer] a racist? He says not. His colleagues say not. More significantly, some black soldiers who served with Colonel Mercer say they don't regard him as a racist either. What we can say for definite is that he is an industrial-grade idiot. He was plain wrong to suggest that black soldiers should put up with being racially abused as par for the course in the army. He sounded just ludicrous when he claimed that soldiers with red hair were more likely to suffer from abuse than members of ethnic minorities. He displayed fully saturated stupidity by suggesting there's no difference between being called a 'ginger bastard' and being called a 'black bastard'. There are no known organisations dedicated to inciting hatred against people with red hair.

George Osborne clearly gets the digital age. About the Mercer affair, Rawnsley concludes that 'David Cameron gets it. His problem is that many in his party still don't get it at all.' Two people an electable political party do not make.


'Top down politics is no longer sustainable in a bottom-up age'

Thought-provoking and rather more valuable than the thing I just read — George Osborne's talk at the RSA last week, 'Recasting the political settlement for the digital age'. Paul Miller drew my attention to it with his post:

Normally, listening to politicians talking about technology is a bit embarrassing. They fall into lots of very obvious traps and sound very naive. But the shadow chancellor has met the people, read the books and obviously spends a fair amount of time online (using Firefox which earned him extra brownie points).

The speech begins:

We are all here this morning because we share a common belief: we believe in the power of technology - in its ability to help transform society for the better by giving individuals more freedom, more choice and ultimately more power. At heart we are technology optimists. Of course technological change isn't always easy to deal with because it so often disrupts the established way of doing things. … Last November, in a talk on politics in the internet age, I identified some of the key social changes that have been unleashed by this technological revolution. Today I want to go further …

You can read the speech in full here. It describes 'three pillars on which I believe this new political settlement should be built':

  • 'The first of these pillars is about equality - equality of information - or what Eric Schmidt, Chief Executive of Google, called "the democratisation of access to information" when he spoke to our Party Conference. For centuries access to the world's information - and the ability to communicate it - was controlled by a few: the powerful, the wealthy and the well educated. … No longer is there an asymmetry of information between the individual and the State, or between the layperson and the expert. This shift is changing the world. It is empowering individuals; raising expectations of government services; and increasing accountability for all of us who work in the public sector and in politics. …
  • The second pillar of a new political settlement will be founded on new social networks. … On-line political networks are springing up in the UK too now - and interestingly they are almost all Conservative ones. There are those networks actively set up by the Conservative Party. … But it is not the official Conservative websites that I find most exciting. It is the unofficial ones. Take Conservativehome.com. … Although I, and other Shadow Cabinet members, am frequently the target of Conservativehome.com, it is for me unambiguously a good thing that it exists. … Top down politics is no longer sustainable in a bottom-up age. … 
  • The final pillar of this new political settlement is open source. … Open source politics means rejecting the old monolithic top-down approach to decision-making. It means throwing open the doors and listening to new ideas and new contributors. It means harnessing the power of mass collaboration. And rather than relying on the input of a few trusted experts, it means drawing on the skills and expertise of millions. … Companies are now increasingly using "Wikis" to solve internal problems - because you can have lots of people working on them at once. Those people don't necessarily have to work for the company. This is a radical departure from our traditional understanding of the business model. … Similar collaborative approaches could be applied in government. … The direction of travel is clear. The government needs to get onboard. … Another way the government could harness an open source approach is through the procurement of open source software. … Ever since I visited the headquarters of Mozilla in Palo Alto I have become a user of their open source Firefox web-browser. … most central governments departments make use of no open source software whatsoever. What's going wrong? The problem is that the cultural change has not taken place in government. … Not a single open source company is included in Catalyst, the government's list of approved IT suppliers. … Another problem has been the lack of open standards in government IT procurement. All too often, a government IT system is incompatible with other types of software, which stifles competition and hampers innovation. Looking at the litany of IT projects that have collapsed or spiralled over budget, it's clear too that this has meant billions of pounds wasted and public service reform being hampered. The government's entire approach needs to be overhauled.'

Striking in itself — a speech about the changed and still changing world in which politicians now work, the challenges, the ways forward — every educator should be reading it:

… the internet is like the child pushing at boundaries of authority and challenging the established way of doing things - the business models from the last century, traditional media, long accepted notions of national jurisdiction and concepts of governmental control. The challenge is for the "pushed" - probably most of us here in this room - to resist the urge to push back: to regulate and legislate; to try to tame and to control.

… the most basic reaction to new technology: doing the old thing a new way. Instead … successful companies are harnessing this new technology to do things in a new way …

What's needed in government is as much a cultural shift as a technological change. A shift to a culture that welcomes criticism and comment - then reacts to it. A shift to a culture that seeks customers' views and ideas at every stage of developing a service. And a shift to a culture where every service can be improved, and no service is ever fully developed. That means more than constantly tinkering with public services for the sake of it. It means being open to fresh thinking and input from both users and deliverers.

How are we, educators and schools, adapting and changing to life in this world?  How are we preparing our students for this world where technology has rendered knowledge abundant; where innovation, creativity, entrepreneurial flair and initiative are prized skills and qualities; where teenagers are collaborating and networking and hacking yet little or none of this is informing and transforming the formal curriculum? (For an index of numerous previous posts to do with education, click here.) The direction of travel is, indeed, clear and schools, too, need to get onboard.


Tony Blair

I was listening to the excellent Reduced Shakespeare Company on Radio 4 perform 'The Condensed History of Tony Blair'. You can catch it again here (about 45 minutes in) between now and next Sunday's Westminster Hour. Jonathan Isaby, writing on The Daily Telegraph website:

It opens with the line: "In the next 15 minutes, we will present 10 glorious years of the greatest prime minister ever known to man," announced by Long with several large dollops of irony. Now I did initially wonder whether having Americans playing the characters would work, but it really does. Blair and Brown are played in the style of Californian dudes, rather like Bill and Ted meets Beavis and Butthead. … listen out for the hilarious song about the Millennium Dome, the love duet between Blair and Alastair Campbell, and the 45-second finale which summarises the entire Blair decade.

***

Armando Iannucci's Observer column yesterday was again great stuff:

Am I going mad? I heard that Tony Blair thinks so. Not just me; everyone. You too. He thinks we're all mad. Someone close to his circle told me recently that the reason Blair seems so resolute, so calm in the face of criticism, is that he thinks the media are just mad. And he confronts unpopularity with the knowledge that we, the public, are turning mad as well. The more we say: 'He's going mad', the more it proves to him that we must be mad. Is that the logic of a madman?

I only mention this because I was struck by the madness of a remark Blair made last week. It was just as the High Court ruled that the government's recent consultation with the public over what our future energy policy should be wasn't consultative enough, and that he and his ministers would have to consult us on the policy again. Asked if this would put on hold his plans to build more nuclear power stations, he said: 'No. This won't affect the policy at all. It'll affect the process of consultation, but not the policy.'

Take a good hard look at that quote again. It's mad. It's based either on a belief in the possession of psychic powers so discriminating they can predict the outcome of a consultation before it happens (which is mad) or they're based on the belief that words have no meaning other than the meaning one chooses to give them and that this meaning can change at any particular moment (which is at least three times as mad as the first example of madness).

John Naughton quoted this yesterday and wrapped up, 'Britain needs a new constitution. At present we have an elected dictatorship which can do what it likes so long as the Prime Minister has a working majority'.

***

k-punk, writing about Robbie Williams and post-modernism:

There's surely a Robin Carmody-type analysis to be done of the parallels between Williams and Tony Blair. Williams' first album, the tellingly-titled Life Thru a Lens was released in 1997, the year of Blair's first election victory. There followed for both a period of success so total that it must have confirmed their most extravagant fantasies of omnipotence (Blair unassailable at two elections; Williams winning more Brit awards than any other artist). Then, a decade after their first success, an ignominious decline into irrelevance (the post-Iraq Blair limping out of office as a lame-duck leader, Williams releasing a disastrous album and checking himself into rehab on the day before this year Brit awards, at which he had received a derisory single nomination). Of course, there are limits to the analogy: Blair is popular in the States, whereas Robbie...

Williams and Blair are two sides of one Joker Hysterical face: two cracked actors, one given over to the performance of sincerity, the other dedicated to the performance of irony. But both, fundamentally, actors - actors to the core, to the extent that they resemble PKD simulacra, shells and masks to which one cannot convincingly attribute any inner life. Blair and Williams seem to exist only for the gaze of the other. That is why it is impossible to imagine either enduring private doubts or misgivings, or indeed experiencing any emotion whose expression is not contrived to produce a response from the other. As is well known, Blair's total identification with his publicly-projected messianic persona instantly transforms any putatively private emotion into a PR gesture; this is the spincerity effect (even if he really means what he is saying, the utterance becomes fake by dint of its public context). The image of Blair or Williams alone in a room, decommissioned androids contemplating their final rejection by a public which once adored them, is genuinely creepy.

Spincerity — who coined that? Search for it on Google and you get (just now) 87 results, headed, 'Did you mean: sincerity'.

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