Monthly Archives: September 2019

Tangled Up in EU

There’s an awful lot of bollocks being written and spoken about the UK leaving the EU with No Deal. The most misleading idea is that of a “clean break”.

Bullshit Party

No Deal exit appears to be the only declared policy of the Bullshit Party, my name for the private company set up by a certain N Farage which is masquerading as political party. (As regular readers may have noticed, I refuse to use the other B word.) This private company, to the best of my understanding, is set up as one-man, autocratic institution where whatever the leader says goes. There is no resemblance to any form of democratic processes found in normal political parties.

A Dental Digression

But first, a small digression. The relevance should become clear shortly. Let’s talk about dental implants, a significant advance in dentistry and which have become more popular in the last decade or so. I have three. Implants are usually made of titanium, and the reason is this. Titanium has the property that it allows osseointegration. At the molecular level, bone growth forms a close bond with the metal in such a way that the jawbone tissue and the metal implant fuse together, becoming as one.

I’m taking good care of my implants because, if poorly managed, they can develop gum disease rather like that which occurs around actual teeth. The thought of needing the surgical removal of any of my implants makes me shudder. This is because, in a sense, my implants have become a part of me.

Forty Six Years

The UK has been a member of the EEC/EU since 1973. For my children and grandchildren, that means their whole lives.

Over the course of nearly half a century, the lives of people in this country have become progressively integrated with those in other EU countries. The Tory government has banged on and on about getting a trade deal with the EU (and the world). But there’s much more to life than just trade.

Here are a few examples. People have fallen in love with someone from other EU countries, married, visit relatives, go on holiday. Elderly relatives are brought to the UK (and vice versa) when they reach the stage where they need care. Parents working in one EU country bring their partners and children here one they’re settled (and v.v.). Healthcare is available across national boundaries. Young adults cross EU borders freely to go to university, study and learn more about other cultures. Artists and performers travel freely, sharing experiences and enriching cultures to mutual benefit.

Most of the above benefits – and more – have been possible thanks to free movement. Businesses have developed integrated supply chains: modern technology has enabled “just in time” delivery for parts in areas such as motor manufacturing. Foodstuffs and medicines pass freely around the EU, tariff free and without the need for bureaucratic quality and customs checks, because standards have been harmonised. The EU is the only institution in the world to have the size and desire to curb monopolistic abuses by companies such as Microsoft. Roaming charges for mobile phones have been abolished. Peace in Northern Ireland is built upon the foundation that both the Irish Republic and the UK are EU members.

In short, millions and millions of decisions, some small, some large, have been made, by individuals and by companies, based upon the – often unconscious – assumption that the UK is part of the EU. Just like the bone tissue and titanium implants, our lives and livelihoods have become inextricably interwoven with our European neighbours.

No “Clean Break”

Anyone thinking there is such a thing as a “clean break” for the UK from the EU hasn’t thought it through properly. Leaving with No Deal would be like taking a pair of pliers and ripping out one of my implants without anaesthetic or antiseptic precautions. The resultant wound would be ghastly and would fester. No Deal is the same – or worse – but, this time affecting the whole country.

The division, bad feeling and tribalism we see now is a mere walk in the park, compared with what might follow a No Deal exit. People who should know better, including our Prime Minister, are already using the language of war – the vocabulary of the far-right thugs. Women (including MPs) are fearful for their safety and worse. People will die. Lots of people seem to favour No Deal – and soon – on the assumption that all the nastiness will stop. Think again: it would make everything worse, a lot worse. The UK’s negotiating position would weaken considerably, prey to the whims and fantasies of Trump’s USA.

There is no such thing as a clean break from the EU, only pain, death and division. There is no “taking back control”.

Bullshit Means Bullshit

Which brings me back finally to the Bullshit Party (which Johnson’s gang of thugs and delusionists are trying to ape). Their leader has stated that the only acceptable, “true” version of Leave is No Deal. That argument, as I have attempted to point out above, is based upon the lie of “clean break”. There is no logical reason for the Bullshit Party to exist.

Lives, jobs, family relationships, civility itself are all at stake. Get real. And, for all our sakes, think!

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Abolish Ofsted?

Disclaimer: the views presented here are my personal ones only and in no way represent those of any schools with which I have been, or continue to be, associated.

I read a spine-chilling story in Saturday’s newspaper which stated that Chinese journalists will soon be required to pass a test, grading their understanding of the teachings of their leader, Xi Jinping. Here’s an account by a US news outlet on the same story. Journalists in China need a licence to practice their profession. In effect, this new edict reduces their role purely to that of propagandists for the Chinese government. Presumably, those journalists with poor marks will be barred from their jobs.

Strangely, you may think, this story brought to mind an organisation which strikes terror in the hearts of the professionals it seeks to regulate: Ofsted. Strangely? There is a strong resemblance, which I explain below.

Amanda Spielman Ofsted
Amanda Spielman, CEO Ofsted

Coincidentally, on the following day, the Labour Party at its conference has announced that it will include in its manifesto a commitment to abolish Ofsted and replace it with a new system mainly based around local authority inspection. The Times Educational Supplement gives a balanced account here and reports that teaching unions are strongly supportive. It’s worth noting that the comments posted below the TES report help to flesh out the main arguments.

Measuring Affluence

Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner said: “I believe Ofsted measures poverty. It measures deprivation. It doesn’t measure excellence. And I think Ofsted has to measure excellence.” From my 32 years’ experience as a school governor, I have long since come to broadly the same conclusion. But here I must first declare an interest: I am a Governor of a school in a deprived area with an exceptionally high level of students for whom English is not their first language. The head and the teachers work exceptionally hard to overcome these disadvantages and ensure that our kids progress well in their long and difficult journey of catch-up with children from more privileged backgrounds. But sadly, we concluded some years ago that it is virtually impossible, arithmetically, for our school to be recognised as “outstanding” because of the way Ofsted measures success.

The Number Fairies

The children’s author Michael Rosen writes an occasional series of articles for the Guardian under the title Letter from a Curious Parent. Rosen is clearly a man after my own heart and I always find him a good read. This article from April 2019 is a case in point.

Rosen’s main criticism of the current system is in its obsession with some highly suspect data and its systemic ignoring of other, more difficult to quantify, factors which influence the overall quality of the education given by a school. The present school “data” is a starting point for deeper probing and insights. It is not the end product from which facile conclusions can be drawn, for example in the notorious league tables so loved by government Ministers and ill-informed sections of the media.

A further major problem with the present Ofsted data system is this. It takes a single dataset (raw students’ results in tests) and cuts them every way conceivable, sub-dividing by gender, ethnicity, a somewhat arbitrary binary disadvantaged / non-disadvantaged categorisation and who knows what. Declaration of interest number two: I have a maths degree and several years’ experience working with statistical analysis in my early career. One of the effects of measuring differences between these various categories is that false positive results will occur by chance and by small sample sizes. Over-emphasis on the detail leads to a regime where false trails are pursued and invalid conclusions are drawn.

In short, the present approach to measuring school performance is statistically illiterate.

Project Fear

The really pernicious effect of this űber-accountability is on the consequences flowing from this rush to judgement. As a governor, I have spent much time discussing (anonymised) individual data, individual kids’ needs and circumstances and the pupil-orientated interventions used and known to bring about improvement. Much of this internal data is now, by Ofsted decree, ignored by their inspectors. Never mind the facts, just look at the huge amount of numbers we can produce for just one school. Reputations can be raised and destroyed by this flawed inspection process. The effects can last years and can destroy the careers of and create unnecessary stress for dedicated, hard-working teachers. The resultant increase in teacher “burn-out” and early retirement, together with the deterrent effect on would-be recruits to the teaching profession, does a huge disservice to teachers and pupils alike.

I am a strong believer in the need for accountability, especially for something as important to future citizens’ life chances as school education. I spent over 20 years as a fairly senior manager in a large corporation devising, redrafting, tweaking and adjusting various performance measures to try to ensure that the more senior managers had a clear and incisive insight into the performance of those we managed. Not an easy or straightforward task. Transferred to the world of education, the issues get ever more complex and important. But a world in which an Ofsted visit is viewed with fear and trepidation – and is seen, to a large extent, as a discredited lottery – is a world gone mad.

“Much Worse Than That”

A few months ago, I attended a Local Authority briefing session for governors. When the formal session had ended, I fell into conversation with a governor from another school, a woman I have never met before. I made some comment to the effect that I was unsure, on balance, whether Ofsted’s existence was a good or bad thing for the education of our children. I said I thought it was probably bad. “Oh no!” said my interlocutor. “They’re much worse than that!”

With Stupid Boy Pike as current Education Secretary, it looks like we will have to wait for a future Labour government before there’s any chance that things will improve.

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