Category Archives: Education

Culture For The Future?

People are fond of gazing back at the past through rose-tinted spectacles.  I remember reading somewhere that no one ‘does’ nostalgia like the British.  I love the 70sI Love The 80s and Dominic Sandbrook’s lightweight, but subtly ideological history series The 70s always present the past as the ideal time in which to live. In Sandbrook’s case, the blemishes, lumps and bumps that define eras and epochs are simply burnished or given a right-wing twist.  “Thatcher arrived to save the country from the unions” was the unspoken message at the end of Sandbrook’s series, which ignored the fact that management ineptitude and a chronic lack of investment was mostly culpable for Britain’s economic and industrial decline. In the case of the I Love… series, talking heads from showbusiness were interviewed on camera to talk about how wonderful Kickers and Kappa tracksuits were. “I really loved Kickers and you had to wear the key ring that came with them” opined one talking head. Just great. As I sat watching I Love 1980 on BBC2, it struck me how much about that year wasn’t mentioned. It was as if the people forced onto the dole queues by the Thatcher government never existed and the St Paul’s riots in Bristol never happened. This was an age of social and political turmoil. Thatcher was determined to destroy what remained of Britain’s countercultures- the permissive society she called it – and she had no time for those who disagreed with her.

Sure there were some good things about the 1970s but the decade wasn’t entirely good. This is, after all, the decade that saw the end of the post-war consensus. This is the decade that witnessed the rise in extreme right-wing activity on our streets, when people of colour were randomly attacked by neo-Nazis for merely going about their business. The National Front were emboldened by electoral gains they’d made in the local elections. Its splinter, the National Party, won two seats on Blackburn council in 1976. One of the reasons why punk arrived at the moment it did was because there  was a need for an antidote to the near endless stream of cultural nostalgia. Everywhere you looked, there was some romanticized reminder of the past, whether it was on The Black and White Minstrel Show or in the pop charts with bands like The Rubettes and Mud rehashing the 1950s with songs like Sugar Baby Love and Tiger Feet respectively. Nostalgia was in Britain’s pop cultural driving seat in a car that had one wheel stuck in the ditch. Britain could not move forward because cultural magnates were too busy gazing longingly into their collective navel.

The toxic sludge of nostalgia that was current in British mainstream culture and political discourse in the 1970s seeped into the thoughts of some of Britain’s prominent rock stars. In June 1976, David Bowie returned to London and gave a press conference to waiting journalists at Victoria Station. Standing in an open top Mercedes, he appeared to give a Nazi salute and was whisked away, flanked by outriders. In a later interview, Bowie told a journalist that

“Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars. Look at some of the films and see how he moved. I think he was quite as good as Jagger.”

A couple of months later a drunken Eric Clapton addressed a stunned Birmingham audience with this message:

“[I think] Enoch’s right … we should send them all back. Throw the wogs out! Keep Britain white!”

Roger Daltrey and Rod Stewart were just as vocal as Clapton. For the millions of kids who bought their records and wanted nothing to do with the views they espoused, this was a slap in the face and a kick in the teeth.  Clapton, in particular, had made a living by playing the blues, an African-American musical form. Ironically, Clapton had recorded a cover of Bob Marley’s I Shot the Sheriff two years earlier. This was a point that was picked up by Red Saunders and Roger Huddle, who responded to Clapton and Bowie’s musings by writing an open letter to Britain’s music press. The letter read:

When we read about Eric Clapton’s Birmingham concert when he urged support for Enoch Powell, we nearly puked. Come on Eric… Own up. Half your music is black. You’re rock music’s biggest colonist… We want to organise a rank and file movement against the racist poison music… P. S. Who shot the Sheriff Eric? It sure as hell wasn’t you!

Rock Against Racism, formed in response to this letter, was the most successful cultural intervention in living memory. It successfully brought together left-wing politics and youth culture, and marginalized the right-wing elements in rock music and beyond.  While it is tempting to think of Live Aid and even Red Wedge in similar terms, we must remember that RAR was a rank and file movement that began with a simple letter to the music press. Red Wedge, for example, was founded to attract votes to the Neil Kinnock-led Labour Party. Live Aid, however, can be read in two ways: first, it was a naive project that responded to a news item on the Ethiopian famine, which had been created by the Eritrean separatist war against Ethiopia. This part of the story was ignored. Much of the aid sent to Ethiopia was diverted to warlords. Second, it was a vehicle to revive the fading career of Bob Geldof. Yes, I’m a cynic but take a look at Make Poverty History and tell me how that has succeeded in eradicating poverty. Poverty can only be eradicated by destroying the current capitalist system, not by liberal hand-wringing and buying cucumber sandwiches at premium prices (a fraction of the profit made on these sandwiches goes towards buying a bucket). Make Poverty History temporarily assuaged liberal guilt and nothing more.

Since the global economic crisis of 2007/8 and the installation of a deeply unpopular Tory-led coalition government in this country, a number of political initiatives have been launched to counter the government’s austerity policies. There’s the Occupy movement and UK Uncut to name but two. What has been missing from these political movements is culture. If you have a Left idea, then you need something cultural to go along with it (qv. Roland Muldoon). For most of the political parties, be they mainstream or fringe, the idea of culture often takes second place (if it happens at all) to their respective ideologies and if culture appears within these parties, it is used as a means to have a laugh and unwind after a hard day of selling the party’s papers on the street, but not as means to contribute to real structural change. This kind of culture that speaks only to a small group of people.  The Conservative Party has never made any real use of culture because they’re too concerned with the past: their idea of culture is stately homes, old bones, statues of war heroes, and possibly the West End theatre of Cameron-Macintosh. Culture is a living thing that’s been created by ordinary people. It was revealing that, instead of creating a Ministry of Culture, John Major created something called The Department for National Heritage in 1994. He may as well have called it The Department for Mausoleums and Tombstones.

The situation that we currently face is dire and, in some ways, it is similar to what we faced in the 1970s. The need for a cultural intervention in Britain is now greater than ever. The rise of UKIP, the appearance of street groups like the English Defence League and Britain First are a cause for concern. Over the decades, the far-right has modified its language and now wishes to be seen as respectable.  Yet the sentiments in Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech are never far from the surface.  Powell himself was never subjected to rehabilitation, though his legions of admirers (some of whom weren’t even born when he made the speech) continue to claim that he was “right”. The normalization of racist, sexist and disablist discourses in the media are partly due to the rise of UKIP and are uttered under the rubric of free speech (or I speak and you shut up). The coalition government’s policies blame the economic crisis on – in no particular order –  benefits claimants, the disabled, single parents, immigration etc. You name it, they blame it. People like Katie Hopkins, who have no formal qualifications in the subjects on which they pontificate, are granted hours of airtime and are rarely, if ever, challenged on their repugnant views. Bullying and deliberate cruelty have become the new lingua franca of mass entertainment and the government alike. The phrase “political correctness” is used pejoratively to marginalize anyone who defends tolerance and fights for equality. This must be challenged at the cultural level as well as the political level.

We should not let Labour off the hook. When  Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair as Prime Minister, he claimed that he wanted to see the kind of patriotism he saw in the United States. Three years later, he gave a speech that contained the phrase “British jobs for British workers”. These words could easily have come from the mouths of Nigel Farage or Tory MP, Peter Bone. Instead, they came from a Labour Prime Minister, who was desperate to appeal to floating voters whose political sympathies were defaulted to the Right. In doing this, Brown unleashed powerful forces that he could not control. Let’s not forget that during the Wilson-Callaghan years the Labour government failed to deal with the rise of the far-right and hid itself inside its Downing Street bunker, oblivious to what was happening on the outside. Callaghan had already called time on the post-war consensus when he applied for an International Monetary Fund loan in 1976 to deal with the Sterling crisis, which was precipitated by the Heath administration’s massive balance of trade deficit. The conditions of this loan led to massive public sector cuts and helped to pave the way for Thatcher’s victory in 1979. Once she had won, Thatcher then draped herself in the Union Jack and repeated the phrase much beloved of nationalists and bigots everywhere: the country is “swamped with immigrants”. These days the words used are “mass migration”. The old right-wing cliché that the country is “full” has also been resurrected. The NF may have been marginalized as a political force, but their anti-immigrant and racist rhetoric lingers in the speech of UKIP and others.

The leadership of today’s Labour Party is just as bad as their predecessors, because they have failed to learn the lessons of their past. In the aftermath of the local and European elections, Ed Miliband and his shadow cabinet kept repeating the line “We got it wrong on immigration”. This plays into the hands of ethno-nationalists and, of course, UKIP, and shows us that the Labour Party’s leadership is too scared to say anything positive about immigrants and immigration for fear of a press backlash. If we go back to the beginning of the current economic crisis, Labour’s political enemies, the Tories and UKIP, couldn’t claim that Labour was “soft on crime”, so they attacked the party on a different front: immigration. Since 2007/8, there has been a steady stream of anti-immigrant stories in the media in which all immigrants are misleadingly referred to as “migrants”. However, many of us living in the  United Kingdom are migrants. If you move home within a city or town, you are a migrant. If you move from Stoke-on-Trent to take up a job in Manchester, you are an economic migrant. The recent British Social Attitudes Survey claims that most people are against immigrants and immigration, with a many more people claiming that immigrants come to this country to take advantage of our benefits system. Yet there is no concrete proof that people come here to live on a measly £72.40 a week. Benefits are more generous in other European countries, so why would anyone want to come here just to claim benefits? If you point this out to the average immigrant-hater, they have no argument. What the British Social Attitudes Survey actually tells us is that people are quite prepared to believe the lies and scare stories that come from the press and the self-appointed experts of Migration Watch UK . Perhaps worst of all, the data from this survey could be used to bolster the Right’s claims that immigration is bad for the country and immigrants are taking British people’s jobs. The Tory-led coalition’s ‘reforms’ are killing people and making many more homeless. They are pitting worker against worker and neighbour against neighbour.

Not a week passes by without some minister or other, repeating the phrase “hardworking families” and smearing those who are out of work. Television also plays its part in these attacks with the near-endless stream of poverty porn that oozes from our screens. Benefits Street, On Benefits and Proud and Filthy Rich and Hungry are a few examples of the media’s bandwagon-hopping tendency to demonize and stigmatize benefits claimants. The latter programme was actually shown as part of the BBC’s Sport Relief season. People’s poverty should not be a cheap source of entertainment; a sort of two minutes hate for bullies and self-styled ‘hard workers’.

Like the 70s, there is a great deal of nostalgia present in mainstream political discourse. When the Tories came to power in 2010, Michael Gove wrote of his affection for the Victorian age. The party itself repeated 19th century mantra of ‘self-help’ and resurrected the phrase “deserving and undeserving poor”.  Ethno-nationalists gorge themselves stupid on nostalgia. They’re constantly dreaming of a Britain that existed in fairy stories. UKIP, for example, wants a return to the 1950s and grammar schools, which it claims are essential for social mobility.  Yet during the 1950s, social mobility was fairly limited. Moreover, people knew their place.  Confusingly, UKIP also wants a return to the 19th century, but their idea of the 19th century is one without the poverty, disease and high infant mortality rates, which proceeded hand-in-glove with the ‘classical’ liberalism that is much loved by today’s Right. ‘Classical’ liberalism is also loved by American neo-confederates, who never tire of telling people that slavery “wasn’t that bad”. It was under a classical liberal economic system that the Irish Potato Famine took place. The mantra then was “it’s God’s will”. For the Right believes that inequality is “natural” – a God-given.

The Tories have always hated the comprehensive education system and want a return to the old system that effectively excluded anyone without the material means to pay for a decent education. In our current education system, by rote learning is threatening to supplant the teaching of critical thinking skills. This is particularly the case in Higher Education, where the former polytechnics (or post-1992 universities) are cutting courses and expunging those courses that include the teaching of critical thinking skills from their curriculum. The government likes people who can’t ask questions, because people who don’t ask questions are easier to manipulate. This the neoliberal idea of education: to train people to be mindless consumers, who question nothing and are unaware or refuse to believe that they’re being oppressed. This is what Gramsci calls “contradictory consciousness” and what Bourdieu refers to as “illusio“. The message from the top seems to be “You will love us while we kick the shit out of you. It’s for your own good”.

Neoliberalism, apart from creating false economies on a grand scale, forces people see themselves as consumers; customers of a particular service.  Healthcare and education, for example, are reified; magically transformed into commodities. Neoliberalism produces illusions: illusions of freedom, illusions of wealth, illusions of choice. Neoliberalism exists to defend the power of the already wealthy and powerful. It pretends to be meritocratic, but in reality it diverts ever more power to the same people who have controlled things for centuries. Neoliberalism is nothing but feudalism in a Savile Row suit carrying a smartphone. If we aren’t careful we will find ourselves in a technologically advanced version of the Middle Ages, where ignorance and superstition rule unchallenged and trump reason and evidence-based solutions every time. We want a modern country that isn’t afraid to look forward. Nostalgia is a comfort blanket for those who fear what the future might hold.

Recently the government has insisted that schools teach “British values”. Aside from being a woolly, ill-defined concept on two levels, this is nothing less that a rush to inculcate forms of nationalist thinking in our children, and risks unleashing dangerous forces that cannot be controlled. For the Right, British history is marked by the dates of battles between royal houses and the births, lives and deaths of monarchs and their acolytes. Britishness only came about with the 1800 Act of Union that brought Ireland into the realm against its will. Moreover, Britishness (like any form of national identity) is entirely constructed from a selection of myths and half-truths. You create your own history.

We know what we’re against: we’re against neoliberalism, inequality, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, disablism, anti-Ziganism, anti-Semitism, corporate greed, slum landlords, inflated travel costs, lazy grasping MPs, war, etc. Therefore, we need to define what we’re for. We are for the 99%, because the current form of capitalism helps to enrich greedy people and sustain a hatred of Others. We must create culture for the 99% that addresses social and political concerns rather than tug on people’s emotions like the bourgeois theatre that dominates London’s West End, or the Hollywood movies that place style over substance. Much of today’s art doesn’t seek to engage with people’s lived experiences, instead it speaks only to itself. It is self-indulgent drivel. The artist must reject the dead space of the bourgeois art gallery, which demands disinterest and contemplation instead of engagement, and use the street as their palette and exhibition space instead.

We should adopt RAR as our model but include all forms of art and culture.  Much to the anti-immigrant parties’ disgust, Britain is a multi-cultural country and that is not going to change. All the multi-coloured cultural strands of this country need to be brought together under one umbrella in celebration of our diversity and in opposition to a cultural industry that is run for the benefit of accountants and media moguls, and says nothing about life as it is lived. We want artists of all kinds to take part in a new grassroots cultural movement for the 99%. Painters, sculptors, musicians, DJs, comedians, dancers, poets, rappers, writers, actors, jugglers, stilt-walkers, puppeteers, clowns and others that I haven’t mentioned. We must create cultural artefacts that look forward, not backwards.

History is a teacher, but nostalgia will teach you nothing that you don’t already know. In the words of Johnny Thunders, “you can’t put your arms around a memory”. That’s true, but you can embrace the challenge of the future.

We are the many, they are few. Culture for the 99%!

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Filed under Arts, Comedy, Education

Life on Hannan World (Part 9)

The occasion of Milton Friedman’s 101st birthday…no, he’s still dead, I just checked… has moved the Lyin’ King to pen this gushing tribute to the man whose economic theories have quite literally turned the world into a toilet. Dan opines:

Today would have been Milton Friedman’s hundred-and-first birthday. The Chicago economist, who died in 2006, is already acquiring that almost Homeric status that normally comes only decades after a man’s life.  Perhaps social media have speeded up the process, or perhaps it’s the fact that Friedman’s strongest enthusiasts are often students with no direct memory of their hero.

Friedman, darling of neoliberals everywhere and supporter of Pinochet’s Chile, where his theories were rammed down people’s throats, is given the airbrush treatment… well, that’s not quite true. Friedman’s supporters refuse to see any flaws in the man. In their eyes, he was the very model of economic perfection. So no need for the airbrush.

Yet for someone who talked so movingly about ‘freedom’, Friedman was capable of turning a blind eye to political repression. For him, all that mattered was the functioning of the free market with its insistence that social relations be reduced to financial transactions between actors. Friedman was also fervently against any form of regulation, so in a pure Friedmanite dystopia, surgeons can practice without proper qualifications and driving licenses would be banned. Can you see the dangers? Yes? Well, Dan can’t.

Here, Hannan tells us:

Friedman did not limit himself to academic theories; he had a keen sense of how to translate ideas into action. He understood politics very well, and used to say that his aim was not to get the right people elected, but to create a climate where even the wrong people would do the right thing. Every year I spend in politics I find that insight more brilliant.

Yes, Friedman understood politics so well that in his perfect world, certain kinds of political activity would have been outlawed because they didn’t fit into his perfect model of a rampant capitalist society.

Here we get to the core of the blog:

What mattered to him most of all? Oddly enough, it was nothing to do with monetary policy, or indeed with economics at all. He believed that the single measure that would do most to ameliorate society was school vouchers.

School vouchers, loved by Pinochet’s Chicago Boys and loathed by those who have had to put up with a substandard education, have become a sort of gold standard in the eyes of the Right.  Higher education, too, has moved backwards. For the last few years, students have been protesting over the inequalities of the education system. Dan simply ignores this.

He had first suggested the idea as early as 1955 – in an intellectual climate so unfriendly that he might as well have been proposing that children be cooked and eaten.

You can see where this is heading and predictably enough, Dan tells us:

But the climate shifted, not least through Friedman’s own interventions and, by the end of his life, a few places were prepared to give his idea a go. Chile had led the way in the 1980s, followed by Sweden in the early 1990s. Milwaukee became the first city in the US to adopt vouchers 23 years ago, and around a quarter of a million American pupils are now benefiting.

“Chile had led the way in the 1980s” he says. No mention of the oppressive weight of the Chilean ‘small state’ crushing those below. No mention of the thousands rounded up, tortured and executed. No mention of the oligarchical free-for-all ushered in by Pinochet’s ‘hands off’ approach to the economy and its disastrous consequences for ordinary Chileans. He continues:

Though Britain has stopped short of full-blown vouchers, Michael Gove has plainly embraced the idea that governments can fund schools without running them, and the free schools programme is one of the greatest of the Coalition’s achievements.

The truth of the matter is that the Tories have been historically opposed to the state school system and have spent the better part of 60 years talking it down when they’re out of power and running it into the ground when they’re in government.  The unspoken dictum here is “some state schools are bad, therefore the state education system is bad”.

The Cat believes that the Tories would prefer it if everyone paid for their schooling and if you can’t find the money, that’s tough. You will die illiterate and ignorant. Why? Because it’s God’s will. That’s why.

Finally Dan tells us:

With his wife, he established the Milton Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, which has helped thousands of students, especially poor students, to get a decent education.

“Choice” has been used as a battering ram since the 1980s. But choice is neither here nor there. You can only have what is available. The Tories believe that if you don’t live in the catchment area of a school that you’ve fetishised, then you should be able to bypass the rules and send your kid there anyway. Better still, set up your own free school where you can be free to inculcate children in any superstitious tosh that occupies your thoughts.

While 75% of free schools were found to be “good” or “outstanding” by OFSTED inspectors, 25% were not. This article from The Guardian says:

One of the first free schools to open has been placed on special measures and given an inadequate rating by Ofsted inspectors, in an untimely blow to the government’s flagship education policy.

Adding:

Inspectors were severe on the primary school’s leadership, saying its governors failed to grasp the school’s “serious shortcomings”, while school leaders “believe the school is far better than it is”.

The inspection team gave the school the lowest grade, of “inadequate”, in three of four categories, for pupil achievement, quality of teaching, leadership and management. “Too many pupils are in danger of leaving the school without being able to read and write properly,” inspectors concluded. “Unless this is put right quickly, pupils are unlikely to flourish in their secondary schools and future lives.”

To borrow from the Tories’ lexicon of smears, I could say that “some free schools are poor, therefore all free schools are poor”. But unlike Dan,  I’m not that petty.

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Filed under Conservative Party, Education, Government & politics, Neoliberalism, Society & culture

As cuts begin to bite, many universities are resorting to the use of unpaid labour as teaching cover. Some universities have even offered unpaid research ‘internships’. For those embarking on a career in academic research, these are uncertain times. Recently the management of the University of East London has told postgraduate students that there will be no teaching work in the coming academic year. PhD students rely on this work to support them in their studies but also because it is an essential part of the PhD experience.

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Filed under Education, Higher Education

Identifying the attacks on state education

There isn’t a week that goes by when some Tory or their pals in the press are complaining about the state education system. Over the years I’ve heard all kinds of excuses from the Right with regards to state education but none as feeble as those dreamt up by Gove and the authors of The Plan, Dan Hannan and Douglas Carswell. For them and so many other right-wingers, state education teaches children nothing and they identify the history syllabus as one of the prime suspects. Into this discourse they have smuggled in notions such as parental choice. Gove designed the free school to subvert and erode the state system. I shall return to Hannan and Carswell later.

If we go back to the beginning of the comprehensive education system we can see why the Tories are so adamant that it should be destroyed. In the years before the comprehensive system, pupils were required to take the 11 plus exam. A pass meant advancement to a local grammar school, failure meant going to the local secondary modern, secondary technical school or an art school, if you were lucky. The comprehensive system was supposed to level the playing field and perhaps this is what the Right hates about it the most. The Tories have demanded the reinstatement of grammar schools, not because they will lead to greater social mobility, as they erroneously claim, but because they (the Tories) are devoted entirely to nostalgia.

Policy Exchange’s Neil O’Brien is, as you’d expect, a champion of Pob’s harebrained education policies. Writing in the Torygraph on May 1, 2012, he says,

Lots of people have written about the blistering pace of Michael Gove’s school reforms. Half of secondary schools are now either academies, or on their way to becoming so. The programme started in 2002, but by April 2010, just before the election, there were 203 academies, as of 1 April 2012, 1,641 out of a total of 3,261 secondary schools were academies.
That’s an impressive rate of change. Lots of them are schools “converting” to academy status. Some people – particularly on the on the left – want the government to focus more on “classic” sponsored academies, where a failing school is shut and replaced with a new one. That’s an important model, and it is good that Gove has responded by announcing a shut-and-replace programme for failing primary schools.

Let’s deal first with this idea that schools that sign up for academy status will be better than those that remain in the state system. Many academies are actually Pupil Referral Units and, because of their nature, these places have a high turnover of pupils. It’s easy, therefore, to claim that you’re meeting targets when the pupil cohort changes from week-to-week. The second thing that needs to be dealt with is this focus on “classical” education. This idea has been borrowed extensively from the public schools with their focus on Latin and the Classics and it’s easy to see why: those who propose this model have either attended public schools or wished they had gone to one (Toby Young). But how well would such schools serve their pupils? Will they have the same advantages as their counterparts in the public schools? Unlikely, that’s down to such things as social and economic capital. If your family has a deficit of these kinds of capital then you can forget about social and professional advancement. If you go for a job in, say, the media, and the kid next to you has been to Marlborough College and you’ve been to a local academy or free school, guess which one out of the pair of you is going to land the job? You’ve guessed it; it isn’t going to be you.

Doc Stanley, also writing in the Telegraph, is pleased with Gove’s ‘reforms’, he gushes,

But they also promise to raise standards and, with the hint of more vocational learning, make us competitive again with our European partners. Anyone who has worked in education can confirm that all too often the learning process has been reduced to meeting targets in fields of knowledge that feel removed from students’ lives. Hopefully we can now say “goodbye” to the straightjackets of silly, wooly GCSEs that were approached with all the educational rigour of a Sudoku and “hello” to a more nuanced system better designed for the individual’s needs and aspirations. And the fact is that O-levels were tougher and, therefore, more internationally respected.

Along with free schools and academies, Gove wants to resurrect long-dead qualifications. The ‘O’ Level, as Stanley asserts, is “tougher”. Of course, all those who are in favour of a return to the ‘O’ Level have conveniently forgotten that it was their idol, Margaret Thatcher, who abolished it and replaced it with GCSEs in the 1980s.

But it is the assertion that state school pupils cannot “write their own names” or identify the capital of this country or that, which appears to be the Right’s main line of attack. While they assume that those who have been to state schools are inferior to those in the public schools, it is worth considering those public school pupils who leave with poor qualifications but still end up with a top job in the Cittie.

This files in the face of the assertion that all those pupils who go to public school will be smarter than those who did not. All they have is a level of articulacy that is greater than their counterparts elsewhere and it is this that they to use to mask their poor intellects.

Martin Stephen the former “High Master” of the prestigious St. Paul’s School in Barnes airs his prejudices,

I thought it was immoral that so many parents were denied their first choice of school. I thought it was immoral that one of the richest countries in the world, and one which spends billions on its schools, cannot even get its pupils in the Top 10 of the international league tables. I thought it was immoral that unions’ knee-jerk reaction to any criticism is to defend the status quo, and that so rarely, if ever, have they themselves led the drive to raise standards. I thought it was immoral that the unions have never accepted that it is in their and their members’ interests to drive bad teachers out of the profession, instead of just complaining when their inaction leaves the Secretary of State for Education no option other than to do it. I thought moral professional associations such as the British Medical Association and the Law Society recognised that they had a duty the patient and the client that they received good service, so did not have to leave it to Government to strike out of the profession members who failed to meet high standards in their treatment of the patient, the client – or the parent and child. I thought it was immoral that the unions seemed always to listen to their members, and not to the parent or the child. I thought it was immoral to think that schools existed for teachers, when the truth (and sometimes a very painful truth) was that teachers and schools exist for the child.

This whole idea of “choice” is misleading: if a school is full, then there are, by definition, no more places on offer. In other words, if you wanted to get your kid into that school, then you should have pulled your finger out long ago and put in the necessary effort. Here, Stephen, like the rest of the Right, blames the unions for the alleged failures of the state system. He also suggests that the state sector is full of “bad teachers”. What Stephen doesn’t dare mention is the fact that teachers in the state system are paid less than their counterparts in public school, have to work with larger classes and are over-burdened with paperwork. Now who is to blame for that? I think it’s only fair to point out that Stephen, as well as being High Master of St Paul’s, was educated at Uppingham, a public school in Rutland. He is also the chairman of Clarendon Academies Group and is the Director of Education at GEMS Education.

Those who constantly attack the state school system do so, almost always, from a position of privilege. Hannan and Carswell spend a great deal of time lambasting the state system but both of them went to public school: Hannan went to Marlborough and Carswell went to Charterhouse. Their understanding of the state education system is entirely based upon a cultural relativism, which is informed by their social class. Therefore their attacks on the state school system are little more than a poorly-disguised form of class disgust. I would further argue that neither author has had any direct experience of the system that they criticize. Yet they feel that they are in a position to pass judgement on a system that they know nothing about. Hannan and Carswell’s book has formed the template for a variety of insane government policies and you can bet that if this government remains in power after 2015, then education vouchers will be introduced.

Applied to the field of education, the traditional voucher scheme may be likened to the mass privatisations of the Thatcher years. The equivalent of the sale of council homes would be to give every parent with school-age children the right to demand, from his local authority, the sum that it would spent on his child, and to take that sum where he pleases.
2008:81

Great in theory but in practice, it’s unworkable and will only lead to a two tier system where those parents who cannot afford ‘choice’ will have no option but to accept a lower standard of education for their children. This is known as social Darwinism where I come from. Hannan and Carswell aren’t interested in such things and tell us.

Opponents of parental choice might argue that parents are not always best qualified to exercise choice. While we do not accept this argument, it is certainly the case that if responsibility is taken away from people, they behave less responsibly. Parents have, by and large, been denied responsibility for their child’s education, with too many decisions made for them in our ‘like-it-or-lump-it’ education system.
2008:81

Hyperbole and guff. This is not a “like-it-or-lump-it” educational system; it is a geographical arrangement that is designed to produce some notion of fairness. While it is not ideal, it is not necessarily an entirely flawed system either. It is assumed that, like other services provided by public institutions, education is a marketable commodity and that the entire educational system should be subjected to this process of reification in order to magically transform it into a ‘product’.

We also need to ask ourselves what is the purpose of school. The current educational system, as it is arranged, perpetuates class divisions. Gramsci (2001) would argue that the current system and the one proposed, reinforces and reproduces the hegemony of the dominant culture. The public schools of Britain existed to reproduce the ruling class and its values. In the late 18th century and early 19th century, education was outside the means of the peasantry and the urban proletariat and they were thus excluded from the political structures of the country. The aim should not be to create a system of reinforced inequalities but to create a decent state educational system for everyone regardless of class. Free schools and academies are nothing less than cash cows for friends of the government.

References
Carswell, D. and Hannan, D. (2008), The Plan – Twelve Months to Renew Britain. London: Self-published

Gramsci, Antonio (2001), Selections From The Prison Notebooks, London: Lawrence & Wishart.

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How Britain lets down its postgraduate students

As any postgraduate student knows, it’s tough trying to study and keep your life together in the face of economic hardship. While many of the UK’s postgraduate students struggle to make ends meet, the little funding that exists is being ruthlessly cut and some universities are using their postgraduates as little more than free labour. By contrast, postgraduates in other countries are well supported. Even in the US, the home of hyper-capitalism, there is generous support for postgraduates. The stereotypical image of the student that has been fixed in the public mind is based on a fictionalized representation of an undergraduate who is a binge-drinking, drug-taking, all-shagging, soap-dodging layabout who prefers to watch The Jeremy Kyle Show or Countdown in his/her semi-darkened hovel rather than go to lectures or seminars.

The attitude of the hacks at the Torygraph and the Daily Fail is one of, “Haven’t you had enough education” and”Why should my taxes pay for you to study? Why can’t you get a job and stop sponging off society”? These sentiments are often echoed by “the man on street” whose position has been at once mediated for him by the press and influenced by his lack of understanding as to what the pursuit of postgraduate study entails, as well as its long-term societal benefits. “Well, what good is a PhD in English Literature? Can you get a job with it”? With this, the vox-pop interviewee falls into the trap of believing that education, like training, should always end with a ‘proper’ job that is directly related to the field of study.  The production of knowledge is omitted from the reply because the speaker does not have an understanding of how knowledge is produced and may possibly believe that it appeared of its own accord or that it has simply always ‘existed’.

But that is not all.

There is a worrying trend towards a kind of anti-intellectualism among the political mainstream.  The idea that academic study can exist for its own sake is despised and dismissed as whimsy.  Witness the lack of creative thinking that emanates from the small minds of the government and opposition frontbench with their preponderance of Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) graduates. Witness the contempt in which certain academic disciplines  like Media Studies and Sociology are held. The knowledge that is produced in these fields and others is deemed “worthless” by the Conservatives and their allies in the press. It is in these disciplines and others in the arts and humanities where we will find those postgraduates who are most likely to be self-funded. The sciences will always attract funding, much of it from central government schemes, wealthy benefactors and pharmaceutical companies. The Russell Group universities will also have no trouble attracting funding. Indeed, many of its students will have oodles of daddy’s money at their disposal. The same cannot be said of someone from a modest background, who is working on a PhD in Cultural Studies at a post-1992 university, which is not a member of any university grouping.  Does that mean that the knowledge that is produced in such an institution serves no use to society? That is absurd.

As a consequence of cuts in Higher Education, disciplines that involve critical thinking are being effectively limited to those who can afford to study them. Higher tuition fees and the rising cost of living combine to have the effect of excluding working class candidates, adults who are returning to study and the low-waged from certain forms of knowledge. For a Conservative Party that is preoccupied with a nostalgic vision of the Victorian Age,  this is ideal  because it allows them to control the flow of knowledge; to filter it, to stifle it and to keep the people in their place. Since the 1980s, the provisions contained in the 1944 Education Act have been effectively torn up before our very eyes. Nu Labour did nothing to stop it.

If the government continues on its present course with regards to education generally, we will slip back to the 14th century in terms of our knowledge base. We already have a massively de-skilled workforce as a result of the systematic shrinkage of our industrial base, now we risk a major knowledge deficit to go with our other deficits. Universities rely on postgraduate students; they attract funding and they produce new ideas.

Currently there is no serious form of support for postgraduates. Academic funding bodies like the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) have changed the way they distribute their funding. Now, money is placed into a pool between a group of universities, which then dole out the money to those applicants whom it deems to be worthy of funded study. The rest can pretty much go to hell.

This Guardian article from April paints a bleak picture. This one asks “Why is postgraduate study missing from the social mobility debate”?

Postgraduate students need access to the kind of funding that allows them to live without the threat of financial ruin if they should fall ill or lose their job through redundancy or injury. The work of postgraduates of all disciplines needs to be recognised as an investment rather than a ruse to avoid doing a ‘proper job’. Higher Education should also be returned to The Department of Education (Gove should be removed as Secretary of State but that’s another blog).

The Postgraduate Workers Association (PGWA) has been set up to fight for the rights of postgraduates who are working as hourly paid lecturers and researchers. It has the support of the University and College Union (UCU). The PGWA has a blog here and a Facebook page here.

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UEL – lobbying the Board of Governors

Vice Chancellor, Patrick McGhee on his way to the Board of Governor's meeting

Yesterday we lobbied UEL’s Board of Governors ahead of their meeting. A group of  staff and students from the soon-to-be dismantled School of Social Sciences gathered outside the Knowledge Dock on the Docklands campus to let the Board know our feelings towards the proposed restructuring contained in the White Paper. As I have reported in a previous blog, the restructuring dismembering of the school falls into line with the Government’s objectives to limit the provision of arts, humanities and social sciences courses at post-1992 universities and to transform them into McEducation-style institutions that offer the same courses.

As you can see from the image, Prof. McGhee took the direct route into the Knowledge Dock and was lobbied by the protesters.  However while Mark Hannam, the board’s deputy chair was listening to our concerns, Prof. Joughin took the heaven-sent opportunity to sneak around the left flank of the group and creep into the building. He was carrying what appeared to be a very large file.

It was good of Mr Hannam to listen to our concerns but whether or not he and the rest of the board can act against the decisions of Joughin remains to be seen.

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UEL and UCLan – a tale of two universities and one management team

I have already blogged about the proposed dismantling of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of East London. The current management team of UEL was at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) before they descended on East London. It appears that they were also involved in a similar exercise there. Like he has done at UEL, John Joughin, allowed a short consultation period and the staff and students were given a ‘Hobson’s choice’.  I understand that Joughin also  cut the word “Humanities” from the name of one of the schools. I am told that the new School of Journalism, Media and Communication has lost much of its identity as well as its former Historical, Critical Studies and Humanities ethos. At UCLan, Sociology is now part of the School of Education. At UEL it will be part of the School of Law. You can see what’s happening here, subjects like Sociology will exist to serve education, law and order and crime detection.  The proposed title for the new school at UEL is to be the School of Creative and Digital Industries. Joughin insists that the word “humanities” will exist in the name of this new school. Does he seriously believe that he can cram all of those words into that School title?

If Joughin believes that we will accept his word that this proposal isn’t ideologically-driven, then he’s clearly either a very bad liar or a complete fool.

It is also interesting that Cambridge University has opened a School of Humanities and Social Sciences.  The timing could not be more perfect. I suspect that the government wants to see a more state-centred approach to HSS.  Looking at the web page I can see that there is no reference to Cultural Studies. Is it possible that this government, through the universities,  is trying to force Cultural Studies to serve specific needs or phase it out entirely? It is unlikely that research projects that examine or investigate popular culture will be funded in future because such things are not deemed to have any value in the collective mind of the Tory-led government.

I am told that UCLan hasn’t recovered from its evisceration at the hands of Joughin and McGhee. Voices that spoke out against the changes were marginalized and many of the professors who were against the changes were purged. The future does not bode well for UEL.

UPDATE: 4/4/11 @ 1236

Added more information to last paragraph

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Chatting with the hatchet-man

I must apologize for the tardiness of this blog. But, as they say, better late than never. The Deputy Vice Chancellor, John Joughin, held a green paper discussion on Friday afternoon. The meeting wasn’t as well attended as I would have liked and there were plenty of empty seats in the lecture hall. I suspect, that once again, the message hadn’t gone out to the majority of students. Indeed, I only knew about it because I’d received an email on the rather poor UEL webmail service, where the fonts are 8 point – if that. If you are visually-impaired, reading emails must be a real nightmare.

As we arrive there are 2 security  guards on the door. Why? Is Joughin expecting trouble? Does he fear for his life? Is he being paranoid? FAQs are distributed to those of us who attended. My eye is immediately drawn to the words “market-based funding system, student expectations, industry requirements and Research Council priorities”. OK, but it’s that phrase “market-based funding system” that sticks in the mind. It comes directly from the mouth of Two-Brains Willetts.

Elsewhere on the FAQs it says “it is a myth that only HSS funding is being targeted by the Government”. I would dispute that statement and, as I point out in this blog, the Tories are very keen to choke off funding to the Humanities and Social Science because it does not regard these as ‘proper subjects’. In fact, as the Observer reports, HSS funding will be tied to so-called “Big Society” projects.

Under the revised principle, research bodies must work to the government’s national objectives, although the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said that ministers will not meddle in individual projects.

It is claimed the AHRC was told that research into the “big society” was non-negotiable if it wished to maintain its funding at £100m a year.

This reminds me of something that Gramsci said with regards to organic intellectuals and how they are usually suborned to the party – in this case it will be the Tory-led government. In this instance, we can see that any intellectual activity will be conscripted to serve the dominant cultural and political hegemony and any activity outside of that will be seen as ‘subversive’. Make no mistake, this ‘shake up’ is ideologically-motivated – regardless of what Two-Brains or any of the intellectual pygmies on the government benches thinks.

The discussion begins. It is moderated by Prof. Mohammad Dastbaz, the Dean of Computing Information Technology and Engineering, which, presumably, isn’t going to be targeted by the cuts. Joughin says that the consultation process has  been “an enjoyable experience”. We all laugh. These are either the words of a sadist or a masochist. I suspect it is the former.

Joughin, who seems less combative than at the previous meeting, announces that consultation period is to be extended by a week. How very generous of him. It still isn’t long enough. The floor is now open for discussion. Godwin Odusemi, makes a point that is not related to the discussion. He talks about voting and other matters. It’s not as if his school is under threat. After he makes his point he leaves with his mobile phone pressed to his ear. What a joker.

Tom raises an issue about the lack of communication. Joughin admits that this hasn’t been perfect and says that this will improve. Others put questions to him about redundancies and the worry that there will be fewer staff working longer hours. He doesn’t seem too concerned and bats these questions away with a “let’s wait and see”.  He then talks about “the national student survey” and issues such as contact time, which he attempts to link  to HSS. But this is a red herring. Social Sciences have always had fewer contact hours and for good reason: students are expected to spend a great deal of time in the library and doing field work. This is a point that is lost on Joughin.

There are 4 admin staff at the back who say “when we were showing new students around, you told us to keep quiet about the changes”. Hearing these words is like watching a torpedo hit a dreadnought at midships. The ship, explodes, lists and eventually sinks, with its bow still poking out from the water before it, too, disappears. Joughin does his best to refloat himself. He denies that he said those words, but the administrators are having none of it. Bravo!

The meeting ends with all of us feeling distinctly cheated but we resolve to fight on.

Another meeting has been called for Thursday at 6pm to accommodate those students with childcare and family commitments. I will try and be there but it will mean that I will likely get home at 10pm.  Friday is a very busy day for me .

Today, I saw a man checking names on lecturers’ doors and making notes about their hours. I can only guess why he is doing it and the thought fills me with dread.

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UEL – under occupation

I received the following press release on Facebook

We the students of the University of East London have gone into occupation on UEL’s main campus at Docklands in response to senior management’s decision to savagely tear apart the Humanities and Social Sciences department of our university. The occupation was commenced after a symbolic ‘funeral’ for the department on the 22nd of March which was attended by more than 200 students. The procession left the central university square to deliver a wreath to John Joughin, UEL Deputy Vice Chancellor, who was not available to see us at the time. The group then sat down to discuss the situation and, after about an hour and a half over thirty people voted to occupy EB.G.14, a ground floor room in the Atrium, Docklands’ main building.

Officially, Friday is the end of the three week consultancy process, a timeframe which we feel amounts to little more than a slap in the face to students and staff concerned about the damage these changes could bring upon our university. This is why our highest priority demand is the extension of the consultation period to allow for us to effectively organise a resistance to the cuts as they have manifested in the attack on HSS. Ultimately our demands are that the HSS remain one cohesive school located entirely on Docklands campus, that students receive the degrees that they signed up for and that there be no lecturer or staff job losses now or in future. It is our fervent belief that education is the keystone upon which a free society is built and that the attacks on the sector represent nothing less than an attack on the very fabric of society itself.We will use our time in occupation to build support both for the national lecturer’s strike on the 24th, when we plan to be supporting our lecturers all day on their picket lines, and also the TUC demonstration on the 26th, which we feel could be a turning point not only in the struggle for education but also in the fight to resist austerity across all levels of society and present a clear and defiant challenge to the ConDem coalition

Today I also received the results of the pointless student survey. Here’s a taster.

When I had a meeting with the representative of the UEL in Lagos Nigeria in 2008, I was told about the facilities at the Dockland
campus, and how they will be most accessible because that was where my course of study is situated. Based on that, i decided to
study at this university. The offer of admission also stated that my course of study was going to be at this campus. I think it is a
breach of contract and quite unfair to suddenly toss me around and away from where I had built my time and comfort as it relates to
my study.

I really hope this student sues UEL if…what am I saying? When it goes ahead.

My comment was far too scathing and they don’t appear to have included it. I was offered an appointment to discuss the changes with the hatchet man. I declined, saying,

Dear Liz,
I don't see what good it will do. The closure of SHSS is a forgone conclusion. I also receive a bursary from HSS and if the school is closed, what happens to that? Prof Joughin said nothing about that. There is another issue, I don't have the money to keep traipsing back and forth to UEL from Hammersmith (it costs £7 a time). I am also forced to take work as a cycling instructor and I cannot afford to take time off work. I'm not sure that I have either the time or the patience to chat with Prof Joughin. He's made up his mind and SHSS is going to close. You can make an appointment by all means but, given his presentation on Monday, he won't want to hear what I have to say.
All the best,

Buddy

Two words spring to mind about this consultation: railroaded and shafted. The consultation was sneaked through under the cover of darkness. Students were only given three weeks to comment. The survey was an exercise in pointless number-crunching. Of course, no one was going to be happy with the changes. We could have told you that. So why bother? This is typical management behaviour.

Education is not a commodity.

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Next week at UEL

In light of the recent announcement of the closure of the University of East London’s School of Humanities and Social Sciences, two events are being planned for next week.

The first is a funeral service for the School’s demise. This is from my colleague, Jenny

The Funeral will be held at
13.30 Tuesday 22nd March 2011
Outside the East Building of the University of East London, Dockland’s Campus

Followed by a gathering of students and Staff for a one minute silence to mark the death of Humanities.

The second is a strike that has been called for Thursday, 24 March by the local branch of the UCU. I will be on the picket line.

No pasaran!

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