Thursday, September 28, 2006

On Blogging

Richard North over at the EU Referendum blog is kicking up quite a fuss regarding the British blogosphere - and questioning just how far the media's use of blogs really reflects their reputation for being the workings of ordinary people. (He's backed it up with a few other implicit digs thereafter, too). Perhaps unsurprisingly, there's a number of people who have attacked North for this, including Matthew Sinclair, Iain Dale, the Devil's Kitchen, and Mike Ion. The consensus, not unfairly, is that North is talking a crock of shit.

Nevertheless, he does have a point on some issues. The way blogging is viewed by the media is very much to focus on a select number of blogs, and in particular the great self-publicists like Guido, Tim Worstall or Tim Montgomerie. And fair play to them - they've managed to carve out their own niche and are having a roaring success as a result. Then again, there are a huge number of blogs that are just total dross, and not really worth anyone's time of day. And a journalist working to a tight deadline is going to go to the sites with reliable, regular posting, and who fit into an easily defined position.

Why is John McDonnell so popular in the press at the moment? Because he wants publicity for his leadership campaign, he has the consistent position of being opposed to the policies of Tony Blair, and so he'll trot out a quote at a moment's notice. Would journalists be expected to trawl through thousands of delegates at the conference to find the most intelligent comment? Of course not - working to deadlines makes that impossible. So you're going to find people who fit your prejudices.

And, of course, pretending political independence is highly rich coming from Dr North in any case. He chastises Kerron Cross and Jonathan Roberts for holding positions in the Labour Party, despite the fact they are fairly minor positions. Perhaps bloggers would care to take a look at the website of the Bruges Group, a virulently anti-European think tank. A look at the "About" page will demonstrate pretty clearly the sorts of supporters it attracts. And then, lets go and look at the "Commentators" page. Who do we find? Oh yes, Richard North and Helen Szamuely, the two editors of EU Referendum. So much for their political independence, eh? North's article can be summarised thus: "I like the fact the media pays attention to blogs, but I hate the fact they don't pay any attention to be".

Of course, North has his own view of what blogging should be. Ignoring the fact that the main reason that anyone would invest so much time in a blog is for one very simple reason - it's fun. Whether we want to spread gossip (something I dislike), swear (something I dislike, but is sometimes amusing), or put out serious, measured articles, there's no point in spending so much time at a computer screen unless we enjoy it.

And for most people, hammering out a daily rant or so gives them the political satisfaction they want. There will be very few people around who really think that blogging is the biggest contribution they can make to the political world. Heck, for most of us printing a stack of leaflets and delivering them through doors in our neighbourhood would have a bigger impact. The beauty of blogging is that it is what the writer wants it to be. And trying to impose a detailed, activist role on every blogger simply won't work.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Not Borne of Anti-Americanism

I spent a happy weekend thoroughly enthralled by the Ryder Cup. The standard of golf was terrific; the crowd was genuinely electrifying, and it was a sporting occasion that was carried out in the best of sportsmanship. Of course, part of the excitement of the Ryder Cup is that it is more or less the only event in golf where partisanship plays a leading role; you are following a corporate entity, not a favourite player or two. It is held infrequently enough that the novelties of teams and matchplay add to the sense of occasion. This sense of occasion leads to truly memorable sporting contests - when was the last forgettable Ryder Cup?

Simon Barnes suggested in yesterday's Times that the passion for the Ryder Cup is inspired in Europe out of hatred for America:

Nor is the alliance about Latvians, Greeks, Dutch and Belgians. It’s not about who we are, it’s about who they are. And if, thank God, much of the poisonousness that attended the event in 1991 and 1999 has been washed away, the essence of the rivalry is simplicity itself: that the Americans need taking down a peg.

In so doing, he demonstrated a lack of understanding for the politics of golf, and, indeed, the politics of life.

In golf, there is a genuine corporate European identity. The top golfers on the continent, by and large, compete on the European Tour. Now, this identity is strengthened by anti-Americanism, but with good reason. The world ranking system, for example, for many years had been skewed towards American players. In a vicious circle, PGA Tour victories were given the highest points, and as these were largely contested by an American field, it was the US who rose to the top of the rankings. Then, when rankings were determined by the strength of field, it was the American events, with the American players, that reinforced the superiority through the system. This is not to say America did not, or does not have the best players in the world. It did, and it does today - Woods, Mickleson and Furyk are rightly ranked 1,2,3 in the world. And now there is some balance; there are four Europeans ranked ahead of the next American.

But there was always a superiority complex about the PGA Tour; the same sort of arrogance that allows the winners of a domestic competition to style themselves "world champions". Europeans were inferior to the US; they had to have their own competition because they couldn't compete. It was golfing politics that lay behind the intensity of feeling in the Ryder Cup through the 80s and 90s. Some inequities still exist - the Masters, for example, disproportionately invites US players. But changes have happened. Now that more Europeans are competing in America, more Brits are serving their golfing apprenticeship in US universities, and now that the ranking system is more equitable, the strength of feeling doesn't exist so much. Yet the meaning that was given to the tournament in the last decade still lingers on.

What Barnes also forgets, though, is that no identity on the earth is defined solely positively. He may not feel European, but there are very strong reasons why Europe's best golfers would - at least in golfing terms. And there's a very good reason why the Ryder Cup didn't expand to include Africa and Asia. There's already a tournament between USA and the Rest of the World (in a non-European sense). The lack of any unifying feeling of the Rest of the World team makes it devoid for meaning; it's a made-for-TV spectacle that doesn't have anywhere near the emotion of the Ryder Cup. Why? Because even in a very loose way, people can identify with the idea of Europe. Expanding it any wider doesn't work.

But the ties that bind us to any identity are partially positive, partially negative. Members of the Labour Party demonstrated today that they are motivated as much by hatred of the Conservatives as they are by belief in their own party. Why do we club together? A large part of it is because we want to identify ourselves as separate from something normal or something we dislike. It's why the Liberal Democrats' attempts to claim to be positive in politics always ring hollow, and they end up with moves like the Great Repeal Act - supporting one agenda is always motivated by rejection of another.

It's the same with the Ryder Cup. There are good reasons to want to knock the Americans down a peg or two - their control of much of the game's money and a majority of the game's majors, for starters. The fact that it's a great chance to demonstrate some superiority where it counts, out on the course. But it wouldn't mean anything like what it does if there wasn't a European identity to go with it. Sure, it's informed by rivalry, and a sense of the other. But it's also formed by a sense of togetherness. You can't create a team spirit that is as successful as Europe's without a common bond that extends beyond the negative.

John Reid, Under The Radar

I wonder if this party conference is being set up to provide John Reid with the platform for a run at the leadership. It's well-known that Michael Howard dictated the terms of the Tory leadership election deliberately to prevent David Davis from taking the leadership. Some of the comparisons between Howard and Blair are striking.

According to Conservative Home, Davis had been circulating a petition to force a vote of confidence in Howard's leadership, which is what precipitated Howard's decision to resign, but only after a protracted period to allow potential challengers to emerge to the seemingly inevitable coronation of Davis. Notice the similarities between Blair's announcement he'd stay on for a year after Brown tried, cack-handedly, to launch a putsch?

Now, Reid, apparently, doesn't want to become Prime Minister. That's what the political journos on Newsnight were saying. But I'm not so sure. His handling of the airline terror threat seemed designed purely to win himself headlines at a time when the people who normally steal the limelight, Messrs Blair and Brown, were away. And by talking tough on terror, he's quite clearly presenting himself as a man who can be trusted with national security.

Why, then, would he want to pretend he doesn't want the top job? Well, for starters, unless he's sure he can win, then he wouldn't want to risk his comfortable position as Home Secretary by pissing off Brown in forcing a contest. Reid is one of the ex-Marxists in the Party who seem motivated more by hanging on to power than acting in the interests of any particular principles, and he wouldn't want to jepoardise his job unnecessarily.

Moreover, I'm sure one of the reasons Brown is taking a hammering in the polls right now is that he so obviously is desperate to move into Number 10. That never plays well with the voters. Sure, he's on a charm offensive, trying to show his human side, trying to set out his firm belief in his Presbyterian ethic. But at the end of the day, we know that he wants the keys to the Cabinet room, he wants to get there as soon as possible, and he probably wants to get there without a fight. Blair's popularity dropped when he became seen as grasping for power, and that his "whiter-than-white" schtick was nothing more than a veil. Brown doesn't have the advantage of being seen as a man of principle to start off with - although this may actually be unfair.

Reid has now got the benefit of a glowing report from Frank Luntz behind him - the same pollster who worked wonders for David Cameron just before the Tory Party Conference last year. And I notice from the speaking order posted at Guido's blog that Reid has effectively been given the last day of the conference for his own speech (let's face it, Jowell, Hain and Prescott are laughing stocks). The other leading potential rivals to Brown, David Miliband and Alan Johnson, not only speak on the same day as each other, but also will be overshadowed by the presence of Bill Clinton (Blair: "hey, look, I get on with nice Americans too!"). Reid is given a free run of the press coverage, in a similar way to the Tory candidates last year each getting their own day for their own speech.

Reid, therefore, has a chance to boost his own profile this week whilst not being part of the personality maelstrom that can only attract negative publicity. All the while, he's professing to be the tough nut whose ambitions go no further than sorting out the Home Office (and, a cynic might say, removing any remaining civil liberties in the process). This sounds to me like he's preparing an under-the-radar campaign in cahoots with Blair - to emerge as a standing candidate only when he's seen as the saviour to save Labour from Brown, who isn't the leader the old guard had hoped for. Whether it will work is a different matter. But the parallels between Howard screwing Davis, and Blair's rift with Brown seem to be quite noticeable here.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Emotional Claptrap

Just come across this post at the Magistrate's Blog:

Harriet Harman, the Department forConstitutional Affairs minister, is launching a consultation paper today on plans to allow relatives of homicide victims to address the court, either in person or through a representative, post-conviction but before sentence.

Well, if she cares to consult me, I shall tell her that this is nauseating tabloid-driven claptrap.

On the case of it being nauseating claptrap, then I couldn't agree more. It irritates me intensely to see the interviews on TV with the families of murder victims, complaining that they haven't received justice for their son and such like. This isn't to say that I don't feel for the pain of their loss, or understand their feelings. Of course they're angry. Of course they want to track down the murderer and rip their guts out, or at the very least make sure they're deprived of their freedom for life. In some cases, they may even be right.

But we have a justice system so that we don't descend into the law of the jungle. It works by taking emotion out of the system, so that facts are assessed rationally, and the evidence scrutinised carefully. Then, the judge is called upon to use his own judgement as to how best to punish the offender - striking a balance between the need to punish the perpetrator, the safety of the community, and the hope of rehabilitation. This isn't to say we shouldn't be shocked by vicious crimes like murder or rape, but that we have to treat them rationally and not succumb to the baser instincts of human nature.

That, of course, is fine in theory. Yet some people are allowed to make emotional appeals in court - those accused of crimes, who then have their lawyers present detailed cases on their troubled history, and the emotional stresses that may have led them to commit such heinous acts. What I'd like to know is this - how is it fair for the perpetrators of the crime to make an emotional appeal to downgrade their sentence, when the other party who has a direct emotional involvement with the case cannot do the same in converse?

Unless there is credible evidence a person was suffering from serious mental disorder, then mitigating circumstances shouldn't come into it. We have to accept there are rights and responsibilities; and that the law is there to be observed at all times. The crime and the guilt of the defendant should be processed in as emotion-free a manner as is possible, given the nature of a judicial system. That means no emotional appeals to the sentencing authority, no matter which side they come from.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Birthday No 2

It's amazing how quickly I seem to be growing up! Although I suppose you can still tell my youthful years (blog-wise, at least!) by the fact that I still continually get mistaken for a Lib Dem.

There's not an awful lot more I can say to expand on the sentiments I expressed this time last year.

It's nice to think my random scribblings are able to find somewhat of a wider audience. I hope I'll still be thanking you in a year's time!

For those of you still coming here - thank you once again!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Jumping The Queue

I was irritated to see the images of John Reid's speech on the news last night, but for once, it wasn't the Home Secretary who was the main target of my ire. The two Islamic gentlemen (I use the term guardedly) who decided that their views were so important that they had to be heard in the middle of John Reid's speech were the ones who raised my blood pressure. Just like the Greenpeace protestors who climbed on to John Prescott's roof, these men seem to think that they can jump the queue; that simply by shouting the loudest they will prevail. It is a worrying trend, and one that should be put a stop to.

That won't happen, though, while the actions of our media remain the same. I listened to Jeremy Vine's Radio 2 show this lunchtime, where a man named Anjem Choudury was arguing very angrily with a young Muslim female, and Mr Vine to boot. It wasn't until I turned to Laban Tall's blog this evening, however, that I realised that Mr Choudury was one of the men who had jumped up to shout abuse at the Home Secretary.

This really surprised me, because when anyone tried to interrupt him on the show today, he complained that his "freedom of speech" was being denied. Never mind the fact that he didn't feel he was imposing on the freedom of speech of the Home Secretary yesterday. Nor did the irony of his statement that "the Home Secretary should be free to talk anywhere in this country" strike him, when yesterday his chum had shouted "how dare you come to a Muslim area?" The man, quite simply, is a hypocrite and a boor, and the BBC shouldn't be giving him the time of day.

At heart, the political ideology espoused by this man is poisonous. He admitted that he considered his loyalty to fellow Muslims to be stronger than that to the law of this country - so that if bomb plots were being hatched, and he knew about it, he wouldn't go to the police. He attacked the woman who had been put on the show alongside him, saying that she was obviously non-practising because she hadn't covered herself, and had come on to the show "half-naked". The point was swiftly rebuked by Vine as well as the panellist, but that didn't seem to stop Choudhury labelling the woman a "sinner".

These men, quite simply, are scum. They espouse political views that are totally abhorrent to what we believe in a free society. They claim the mantle of democracy and freedom of speech when it suits them, but their words and their actions show that they don't actually believe anything of the sort. They're not prepared to face up to community responsibilities - they believe only in the imposition of sharia law, and they will take on any mantle they can to further that aim. They claim to believe in human rights, such as the freedom to spread bile left, right, and centre, but when it comes to, say, allowing women to wear what they want, then their strength of feeling dissipates.

As much as it pains me to agree with John Reid, he was absolutely right when he asked parents to keep an eye on the activities of their children. The fact of the matter is simple - the terrorist threat is one of Islamic fundamentalism. When you get the vox pops with people asking questions like "why aren't they saying the same things to Christians, to Jews, to Hindus?" people seem too scared to give the simple retort. Only Muslims are blowing themselves and countless others up. And if the Muslim community isn't prepared to play its part in stopping that, there are serious, serious problems ahead.

An American Revolution, Sarbanes-Oxley Style

The Pub Philosopher reports on the regulatory creep of the US with regards to business legislation. They're once more claiming jurisdiction over the actions of British companies.

A foreign legislature in which Britain has no representation has imposed burdensome regulations on British businesses. Its inspectors demand the right to scrutinise companies on British soil and could potentially bring criminal charges against British executives for non-compliance.

Isn't that the sort of thing that led the Americans to declare independence?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Fat Sam's Bungs

I wonder if this is one of the key reasons Sam Allardyce didn't get the England job. Even if it's only rumour, it's difficult to appoint someone tainted by allegations to such a high profile role.

Talking Television Cameras

Middlesbrough and its Robocop Mayor, Ray Mallon, are once again courting controversy from civil liberties bodies by introducing "talking CCTV cameras". Seven cameras in the town centre have been equipped with loudspeakers, so that those engaging in anti-social behaviour can be chided from above. The bad citizens of Middlesbrough now face public attention being drawn to them when they act aggressively or throw litter around.

It all sounds like a scene from 1984. The idea that you are being spied on is somewhat strange. Then again, the only change that this introduces is a direct sanction for those misbehaving on the streets. I worked out that during a typical day of mine in Oxford, there is a very limited time when you couldn't work out where I am. Colleges are rigged up to CCTV in all corners; I have to check into libraries with my university card, where data can presumably be collected; even if I'm just out innocently on the streets, many of the places I visit will be recording my activities. CCTV is now a fact of life.

Does it make a difference, then, to have a voice talking to you, rather than a security official just reclining in his chair watching you? Yes - it marks a change from passive to active observation. There's something more creepy about having someone ready to chastise you at all hours than there is about being recorded on videotape that will only be used if an objectionable incident takes place. That should make people more uncomfortable - for such an interventionist approach can lead to a slippery slope where it is the town council and the mayor that decides what is acceptable behaviour.

Nevertheless, my overwhelming reaction to this is one of sadness. Why should it take an invisible functionary to tell kids to stop throwing litter, or to intervene to prevent aggressive behaviour? That, surely, is the sort of thing that the other people on the street should be sorting out. The problem is, they feel too intimidated to do anything about it. (No doubt the lack of bobbies on the beat, and their inability to administer a quick clip round the ear, has something to do with this state of affairs). It's worrying when behaviour that most people agree is unacceptable is allowed to become commonplace because people won't stand up for a safer community, and look to the state to help.

My request to the civil liberties organisations that are complaining about the new scheme is this - take some responsibility yourself. Civil rights can only exist in a functioning society when they are coupled with a population prepared to face its responsibilities. If the operatives don't want to walk in fear of being chided for their actions, then they need to stand up for their streets, and tackle those who throw litter, those who act aggressively, those who want to make our communities unpleasant places to live. Because unless people take responsibility themselves, it's going to be intrusive government measures that find a degree of popularity.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A New Tory Tactic?

The Liberal Democrats have, in the past, been masters at pandering to the student vote. Anyone currently or recently at university in Britain will be familiar with the industrial quantities of paper sent to them extolling the virtues of their stand on tuition fees and the Iraq war. Indeed, were one to rely solely on the literature sent by the Liberal Democrats, a student in Britain could be forgiven for thinking that the third party in the UK had policy on only two areas, and that they'd occasionally pipe up on ID cards to boot.

Many Tory bloggers have already pointed out that the new Lib Dem tax plans will hit the poor and families with young children pretty hard. It's quite ridiculous to assume that families can easily switch to public transport. If they want to hit at gas-guzzling SUVs, fine - but these plans hit drivers of Mondeos to the equivalent of around £800 a year. But I think that the new plans may well open up another opportunity for the Tories to position themselves well among young voters.

A car is one of the most eagerly-awaited benefits of a teenager reaching adulthood. The ability to drive allows children much greater freedom from their parents; the ability to go out more freely, and in a time when many are complaining about a 'loss of childhood', also serves as a real and tangible rite of passage.

Such a rite of passage comes at a price, however. A car does not come cheap to a 17-year-old, nor does the insurance for a newly-qualified driver. The Lib Dems seem to want to stack a hefty tax bill on top. Now, I haven't studied the specifics of the plans in great detail, but it seems to me that this is going to adversely affect young people in that they will be presented with a new tax bill upon buying their first car. The mobility of driving is essential in many parts of the country - in the North East, for example, if you don't have a car, your ability to fulfil many jobs is diminished. Public transport simply isn't good enough (that, of course, is another problem of the 'green tax' plans - they won't go to infrastructural investment, but rather to funding tax cuts elsewhere).

This to me seems a great marketing opportunity - "the Lib Dems pricing you out of a car" or some other appeal to the young. After all, the Liberal Democrats have been negatively targeting youngsters for a long time, appealing to their self-interest. Why shouldn't the marketing people at CCO try the same trick in reverse? If the electoral fortunes of the Tories are to be turned around, then they need to attract the young votes. This seems like a pretty good tactic to use to me!

Monday, September 18, 2006

Ming the Meritless?

The party conference season is now underway, and once again, "lazy journalist syndrome" is in evidence. I moaned a couple of days ago about the fact that the media trots out the same story every year regarding exam results. The conference season is pretty similar - every conference has some sort of pre-prepared narrative, that leads to two possible outcomes, success or failure.

Sometimes the storylines are played out with pantomime regularity. "Gordon Brown places a strong challenge to Blair" on the Tuesday of a Labour conference; "Blair hits back at critics with barnstorming speech" on the Wednesday. The broader implications of a conference - policy discussions; a sampling of fringe events; the energy and vitality of the delegates - get left to the 'geek pages' that only political nerds like me bother to read.

Stephen Tall, recently crowned Lib Dem blogger of the year (deservedly so - not least for his willingness to listen to me talk at great length about the American Revolution in Pennsylvania the other night), challenged the media before the start of the Lib Dem conference:

I travelled down by train to conference today, together with three fellow Lib Dems. The issues we discussed ranged widely: the 50p debate, land value tax v local income tax, replacing Trident, the size of school sixth forms, compulsory voting, waste recycling. Ming’s leadership wasn’t mentioned once.

Mr Assinder is in one sense right. The issue of leadership is hanging over the conference – but that’s because it’s the only issue the media can be bothered to pay any attention to. Personality politics is easy to report; any fool can do it.

I wonder, though, if part of the focus on personality stems from the fact that Ming has not been an impressive leader so far. That if he had come out as an impressive performer, and attached more direction and leadership to the party after the Kennedy debacle, then the key question would be more about the new policy direction the Lib Dems were about to embark on. If he wasn't constantly trying to present himself as a man of the people, people wouldn't be wondering who Ming actually was. If he could sit through a pretty soft interview with Michael White (sample question: tell me about your parents) without being visibly nervous, questions about leadership wouldn't arise.

(A note to Ming's advisors: having watched the Q and A with Michael White today, don't get Ming to talk about his background again. He comes across as a relic from a past time.)

A further rumination makes me wonder whether the nature of the Liberal Democrat party causes some of this instability. No policy can be decided upon without being ratified by conference - in principle a good idea, but it means that any leader has to show a force of personality. The leader's role in such a system is somewhat constricted - his job is to put the best possible spin on what the policy decides, and he isn't given sufficient leeway to steer the party himself.

The problem with Ming Campbell is that his public performances up till now have been nothing short of atrocious. He couldn't afford to make a pig's ear of PMQs so often. IDS wasn't rejected by the Tories because of his policies; he was rejected because as a person, he didn't have the charisma or the intellectual ability to lead. It is noteworthy that he has carved a highly respectable niche for himself with the Centre for Social Justice - it is not that IDS didn't have talents, it's that he isn't a leader. If you can't present yourself well in public, then there will always be questions over leadership. And conversely, it is the fact that David Cameron is a masterful media manipulator that has meant he has been able to dodge many important questions.

If Ming had been given the freedom to announce certain policies (to be ratified later by conference), then maybe he could have stamped his own indelible mark on the party and on the public consciousness. Instead, the force of personality has been the only force he's been able to unleash. And, let's face it, it's been far, far less than impressive. If the Liberal Democrats are going to make a mark on the political landscape, they need to force journalists to take notice of them. That's not easy when lazy journalists want to turn everything into an either-or dichotomy. With an uninspiring leader like Ming, the publicity the Lib Dems need will not be forthcoming.

The Need for Coursework

Coursework has become one of the most maligned aspects of our regularly-maligned exam system. Stories abound of people 'playing the system' - teachers giving assistance above and beyond what can reasonably be expected (to the extent of giving pre-prepared quotes lists to all students); parents writing their kids' assignments; the spectre of readily-downloadable essays on the Internet. One of my fellow students at school is rumoured to have copied his GCSE creative writing assignment from Rumpole of the Bailey. Surely a system so open to abuse must be wrong?

Simply because a system can be circumvented, however, doesn't mean that the system is, at core, wrong. The reason that such widespread cheating happens is because the exam system isn't rigorous enough to check each and every individual. Even a sufficiently high level of random cheating - with stern penalties attached to teachers and students found to have cheated - should provide a pretty strong incentive to keep a fair system. Schools may receive bonuses if they rise in the league tables - but if there's a chance of losing your job and being struck off teaching because you tried to fiddle the system, then the teacher involved has a harder choice to make.

It is vital that a more rigorous checking system is put in place, because an effectively policed coursework system is vital in making Britain's public examination system as rigorous and effective as possible.

A system that is based entirely on examinations, whether taken as modules or as a final act of education, can only test a limited range of skills. The ability for instant recall of information, for example, is prized above other skills. In a short time, too, an examination answer rewards the person who can bulldoze through an argument. Hitting the point quickly, and drawing together the necessary facts to support your answer are all that is really possible in (say) a 45-minute essay.

A coursework project, on the other hand, demands that the student consider a wider range of evidence, and construct an argument with far more care, than can possibly be tested in any single exam. Moreover, it allows the chance for more rigorous source analysis and application of further contextual information. The ability to construct a more detailed piece of work, that requires greater depth to the argument, is absolutely vital to any system. That is why the thesis is an essential part of many university courses. It allows skills that are less to the fore in timed examinations to be assessed as part of a candidate's overall merit.

The argument applies equally to sciences, too. The recall of information, and the ability to solve unfamiliar problems are crucial in succeeding in a science. At the same time, however, there is a practical element to this knowledge that needs to be tested to gain a full picture of any candidate's ability.

Coursework is maligned because we have an exam system that does not have sufficiently strong procedures in place to identify where cheating has occurred. Because at heart, coursework assignments strengthen an exam system. They prevent candidates from being assessed on too limited a number of skills; they demand that a candidate is able to construct an argument in detail and of a far wider scope than can be answered in any single examination. It adds a fundamentally useful aspect to our exam system; if it is considered too easy to step around, it is the marking process that should be tightened.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Knee-Jerk Reactions

One of the stories that I haven't yet commented on is the usual kerfuffle over exam results that kicks off every August. Journalists must love that month - any who aren't already on holiday simply dust down their laptops and dig out the story they wrote last year. Change a few names, maybe replace a quote or two, and they've got a story ready to go.

Two of the most frequent complaints predictably drew comments from the Tories. The first is that all children should be made to do a language at GCSE - this year's cohort being the first that did not have such a requirement. The second is that coursework is a "soft option" that invariably leads to grade inflation. Both statements, to my mind, are completely wrong-headed. I'll deal with one today, and come back to the other tomorrow.

Firstly, the idea that all children should learn a language. I speak here as someone who took French and German at A-Level, and I feel embarrassed whenever I travel to a country where I am unable to speak the language. As far as I am concerned, the more students who learn languages, the better. It should be a source of national shame that at many schools in Wales, A-Level Welsh is a more popular option than French or German. We cannot break down a "little Englander" mentality unless we have the ability to converse more effectively with our neighbours. Human contact is the best way of breaking down artificial barriers; without an ability at languages is one of the best ways of facilitating this.

But if politicians really think that a language GCSE is the best vehicle for achieving this, they ought to think again. In percentage terms, it is one of the easiest GCSEs in which to achieve top grades, and yet the amount of language knowledge needed is, to all intents and purposes, trivial. You could order drinks in a cafe, talk briefly about your hobbies, and be able to buy a rail ticket (or fix a flat tyre!), but in terms of striking up a conversation with a passing German, then it's not especially useful. And most certainly not if people are only passing at grade C.

A far more important study would be one that showed the proportion of those getting good grades across the board without taking a language. The argument of the Tories holds up for high academic achievers. But, in many ways, a language is a luxury, not an essential skill for most jobs in this country. At the same time, no-one can doubt the fact that Maths and English are essential.

Yet there are children up and down the country who struggle to make the grade at these core subjects - far more vital to our country's future, I'd contend, than learning a language. Why should we waste valuable teaching time on skills that will be little used and little valued in the future, when subjects that are vitally important don't receive enough attention?

Additionally, aren't we just forcing kids to tilt at windmills when they have to grapple with the structures of a strange language when, in many cases, they can't understand their own?

Of course, what this highlights is the dangers of a one-size-fits-all system. The attention and teaching required by those who struggle to make the 5 A*-C benchmark is totally different to that required by high-fliers who will achieve a string of top grades. So suggesting that everyone should take a language GCSE totally misses the point. We should be equipping people with a top-class education. But it is often said that the best is the enemy of the good, and so it proves here.

In an ideal world, every school-leaver would be fluent in a foreign language. That, however, is an unrealistic goal, albeit one that sounds nice. What we have to do is prioritise in the education system. For some children, that means introducing them to as wide a range of subjects as possible. For others, that means concentrating damned hard on a small number of subjects, making sure they're equipped with the core skills they need. But a nuanced approach doesn't get headlines - after all, the journalists only want a quote they can trot out from year to year.

A knee-jerk reaction doesn't create a sound education policy. There are good reasons why many students should be learning a language. But there are equally good reasons as to why many students shouldn't. We're not going to get the world-class education system we need in Britain until politicians of all shades are prepared to look beyond the headlines.

Guess Who's Back?

Well, after a long time of being fairly uninspired by the news, I've decided to return to this blogging lark. Partially, this is in response to having been at a party last night where the fact that I am Iain Dale's 31st favourite Lib Dem blogger became a source of great amusement. Quite possibly due to the fact that I'm not actually a Lib Dem...