Tuesday 28 August 2012

Exams as rationing life chances.

I am off this afternoon to an NUT protest outside the Department of Education against the GCSE marking fiasco.

I'm tempted to say that Education Secretary Mr Bean Michael Grove is just the nerdy kid who was bullied at school and is now getting his own back. Although rather than climbing on to  the library roof with a sniper's rifle, he is taking pot-shots at the futures of a generation. 

But rather more seriously - the Tories have been bleating about GCSE 'grade inflation' for several years now.  They may be  hiding Pontius Pilate-like behind the examing body - but in fact their opposition to year-on-year progress in exams  reveals the underlying narrow and nasty elitist nature of their attitude to education. They claim  that exams are too easy and that kids are overly spoon-fed in preparation for them.  Balanced peversely  at the same time  with  an obssession with targets and league tables, and scare-mongering about standards of teaching.

So they have come up with the simple solution of just shifting the grade boundaries in the middle of an academic year.  Or as one headteacher interviewed by the BBC put it  - they brought on smaller goalposts in the middle of the game - to the extent that the same mark that would have earnt a C pass in January didn't in June.  

As someone who has gone back to school after a thirty year gap, I've seen the new culture in schools: And this 'over-coaching'  is actually just another way of talking about a more inclusive approach to exams, and education in general.

When I was a kid no marking schemes or success criteria were made explicit to us. We were jsut told to just do the we could - and pretty much  left to  ourselves to figure out how. Only  a minority of us - assuming we got the chance in the first place to sit the O levels that the Tories like so much - got to figure this  out for ourselves, either  by good luck  or good judgement. Against this the modern practice of setting indvividual targets and explaining success criteria  is nothing more than an attempt to create something like a level playing field.

In contrast to this, the current exam fiasco looks - and arguably the whole public exam process in general - looks like an exercise in rationing: 

Rationing of access to further and higher education, to genuine apprenticeships in proper trades, and to the job market in general. Because ithe magical  five A-C's at GCSE are rapidly becoming the passport without which kids at the age of 16 are going to be consigned to a lifetime of casual McJobs. And when times are tough, tightening up on rationing for the masses is just the natural thing to do. If you're a Tory.

Saturday 25 August 2012

Prince Harry and the titillating toff phenomenon

I have developed a disturbing addiction to watching 'The Tudors'. I missed out on it first time around, but I now find it has a dreadful fascination. It may be rubbish history but it makes for fun tv. 

It's so full of historical anomalies and inaccuracies that I don't know where to begin - but mostly there is the fat and forty syphillitic Henry VII's  portrayal as a renaissance pouty poster boy. Amongst the constant plotting, shagging and double-dealing there is some suggestion that Henry was a tortured soul. But mostly there is a sense that he is just a 'lusty good ole boy.'

From the original Prince Hal (Henry V), Henry VIII, Charles II, George IV, Edward VII  - to the current royal party animal, another Prince Harry. There seems to be a long tradition of the masses rather liking to be shocked and titillated when royalty behaves this way.

The phenomenon is much the same as with  professional footballers.  A mixture of deference, puerile fascination and an odd sense of living a more interesting life through someone with access to more temptation and toys. And most strangely of all - a sense that when our betters behave in this way they show their humanity and by implication demonstrate that they are most 'like us'.

All of which means that those party pictures of Prince Harry won't really do much significant damage to the monarchy. Sadly.

Monday 20 August 2012

End of an era for the ANC

Back in the day, many's the time that I would be standing outside South Africa House protesting against the apartheid regime.

I knew about - and fully subscribed to - the sober Marxist analysis that there could be no peace or prosperity for the region until capitalism was eradicated. But to be honest even that wasn't enough to  stem a sense of good-will and optimism towards the ANC's 'rainbow nation'. In truth that bubble was burst long along - but the spectacle last week of 46 striking mineworkers being shot was still beyond shocking. It's a milestone marking  the ultimate decline of the ANC from liberation movement to just another party of capital.

Because most poignantly - the strikers in Marikana face an unholy coalition of not only the bastard mining company Lonmin, but also the ANC's security forces and their own former union - the once revered South African NUM who seemed to have turned this into a turf war with the independent break-away AMCU.

So despite having some sort of  grip on what's been happening there -  it was with a very heavy heart then that I found myself holding a placard in Trafalgar Square again  this evening - some  twenty years after  celebrating the end of apartheid.

Friday 17 August 2012

Medieval human rights

Today two truly incredible stories are coming to a head. They've been much covered in inter-web land and I've got no miraculous new insights other than to quietly point out a connection between the two.

On the one hand we have  the Assange affair and the bizarre spectacle of the Ecuadorian embassy offering him a sanctuary. Which our own government is preparing to violate, and break with all diplomatic norms by entering and  arresting him so that he can be delivered up to our US overlords. And on the other hand in Russia we have the show trial  of  the Pussy Riot collective for 'hooliganism' in publicly ridiculing Putin - for which they face three years in prison.

Two modern states and world powers - both up to their necks in stories that are in fact straight out of the Middle Ages.

Actually that's not quite fair - whilst Putin's behaviour is perfectly consistent with medieval kings who regarded the state as their own personal fiefdom, generally everyone was loathe to violate the protocols of sanctuary.  

At times like this  democracy and human rights in modern states aren't much more than a thin and inconvenient veneer.

Monday 6 August 2012

The faces of Cool Britannia ?

Last week I went to the Judo - I sport I have a limited knowledge of, and last night to the Graeco-Roman Wrestling - a sport I have no previous knowledge of at all. I had a great time at both. Doubtless my enjoyment would have been greater if  I'd had understood more of what I was watching - Graeco-Roman manages to be both deceptively simple and also highly technical - but after a few minutes I was completely immersed into it.  

This wasn't because I was a partisan spectator either -  Team GB were not represented at all - and with the  USA favouring  Freestyle Wrestling, Graeco-Roman seems to be dominated by Eastern Europe and Central Asia. So in the same vein as my previous post - the fact that I can came away from the Graeco-Roman so engaged speaks volumes about the 'pure' and universal ability of sport to inspire. 

There's a lot in the papers today about the feel-good factor of a weekend where Great Britain enjoyed record success in the 'mainstream' area of track and field. 

Sober reflection on this would say there is an undeniable element of jingoist distraction from the gloom of austerity in all this. I am fairly immune to this - and personally my immediate reaction to the announcement on the PA that the ever-miserable Andy Murray had won gold in the tennis was to just  groan inwardly.

But as with the 'Cool Britannia' opening ceremony, my cynicism is tempered.

There is certainly a whiff of 'one nation' bullshit about all this attempt to be all-inclusive. I'm sure there was an element of it in Lord Coe's decision to feature Jessica Ennis as the 'face of the games'. But it is worth remembering that in this country there remains a significant minority of nasty Little England shits, who would deny us the idea of a multicultural society, and wish that our society had been frozen in the Chariots of Fire era of sporting toffs we could all look up to.

One of them is Rick Dewsbury of the Daily Mail talking about the opening ceremony:'it is likely to be a challenge for the organisers to find an educated white mother and black father living together with a happy family in such a set up...'

The very visible success of a young state school educated, mixed-race woman from a working class background must stick in his throat and that of many others like him. And for that reason alone - despite the disgrace that 50% of British medals went to athletes educated at independent schools that cater for a mere 7% of the population - it worth (briefly) joining in the celebrations.

I promise my next post will be about something other  than the Olympics ...

Friday 3 August 2012

Sport as culture

Yesterday I went to the first of the two Olympic events that I got tickets for (over a year ago back in the days when I still had money). And a great day I had too - from the sport itself to a totally painless experience of getting to the venue and passing through the much discussed security.

Recently I have spoken about going to the Olympics to a few of my 'right-on' friends who seem to think that doing so was some sort of petit-bourgeois deviationism. 

What sanctimonious bollocks. There is a peculiar trend in certain parts of the Left that regards sport as at best a kind of modern day opiate of the people, and at worst  an inherently reactionary celebration of competition. And of course they  throw in the obvious (and undeniable) points about the corporate manipulation of sport as profit.

It's a philistine attitude that they wouldn't dare make about any other aspect of art and culture. Because that's exactly how sport should be considered -  as a physical expression of human culture. As it was at the original Olympics - and in modern times too until 1952 - when medals were given for sculpture and so on just as they were for athletics.

Nobody living in London who has their head screwed on needs to be lectured on the highly dubious 'legacy' that the Olympics will leave behind in the capital's most impoverished boroughs. And we can hardly help but notice the branding onslaught that big business have taken the opportunity of the games to unleash.

But the answer to all this can be found in simply watching the reaction of South African gold-medalist Chad  Le Clos's father being interviewed. His reaction shows why sport can express everything that is great about being human.

As Ray says - let's now just sit back and enjoy the games - we can argue about them later.