Thursday 12th December 2013
There are lots of good arguments for a British equivalent of the First Amendment, not least that it would prevent Parliament passing any law that abridged the freedom of the press, and I hope the next Conservative manifesto includes a commitment to replacing the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights.
But perhaps the strongest argument is that it would be a bulwark against the propensity of the majority to tyrannise over the minority, always a risk in democratic societies. I'm not talking about the risk of laws being passed to abridge free speech, though that, too, is something the First Amendment prevents in the United States. Rather, the risk that anyone who has a deeply unfashionable opinion on a subject will censor themselves for fear of incurring the wrath of the self-righteous majority. (To read more, click here.)
Thursday 12th December 2013
When I first suggested to my closest male friends that we have a “boys’ Christmas lunch” it didn’t occur to me that this would turn into an annual institution. We saw each other three nights a week as it was, so this was just another excuse to go out and get drunk. But a one-off became a habit, a habit became a ritual and that ritual now enjoys the same status as all the other little ceremonies that make up Christmas. Today, I would no more think of missing that lunch than I would of resigning from my job as “paper elf” – the person whose job it is to pick up all the wrapping paper that’s discarded in our house on December 25th.
The reason it’s become so imbued with meaning is because it’s now the only time I see these friends. Part of the ritual is going round the table, with each of us taking in it turn to tell the others about the year we’ve had, our triumphs and disasters and how we’ve tried to meet those imposters just the same. Inevitably, the lunches have begun to seem like an unfolding narrative, almost as if we were characters in a play. When one of us reveals something significant, such as a marital crisis, it’s both shocking and inevitable at the same time. (To read more, click here.)
Wednesday 11th December 2013
The National Audit Office's report on free schools is generally favourable, though you wouldn't know it if you relied on this article on the BBC's website.
The NAO report found that the average cost of establishing a new free school is £6.6m, compared to an average cost of creating a new school under the last government of £25m. "New approaches have led to much lower average construction costs than in previous programmes," it says. Yet the BBC chose to go with the following headline: "Free schools costs trebled to £1.5b." (To read more, click here.)
Friday 6th December 2013
Friday 6th December 2013
The poor showing of Wales in the Pisa international league tables published earlier this week is a reminder of just what a mess Labour has made of the Welsh education system. In 2006, Welsh schoolchildren were ranked 30th in maths, 29th in reading and 22nd in science. In the latest tests, they fell to 43rd in maths, 41st in reading and 36th in science. Wales isn't simply the worst performer in the UK, it's well below the OECD average.
The blame for this pitiful state of affairs can be laid squarely at the feet of the Labour Party, which has been in charge of education in Wales since 1999. The education reforms that successive governments have introduced in other parts of the UK in that time have left Wales largely untouched. League tables were abolished in 2001 and not a single academy or free school has been set up. As the Economist points out in this damning analysis, parental choice in Wales is limited to deciding whether to send a child to a school where lessons are taught in English or Welsh. The country has indulged in what David Reynolds, an educationalist at the University of Southampton, describes as “producerism's last hurrah”. Hardly surprising, then, that 26 per cent of the Welsh population over 16 have no recognised qualifications, according to the 2011 census.
But education isn't the only devolved area that the Welsh National Assembly, which has been Labour-controlled since 2000, has messed up. (To read more, click here.)
Thursday 5th December 2013
I’ve just had a massive row with Caroline about Christmas cards. We usually send about 120 and this year we’ve each ordered them from a different source – Caroline from the children’s primary in Shepherd’s Bush and me from the West London Free School. Our fight was about which batch to keep.
Caroline has sentiment on her side because the cards she wants to send out have been made by our children. It’s essentially a fund-raising ruse whereby the school gets each pupil to “design” a Christmas card, i.e. put a few scribbles down on a piece of paper, then has them printed and sells them to parents at a massive mark-up. (I’ve paid for my cards too, incidentally, but they’re nothing like as expensive.) (To read more, click here.)
Tuesday 3rd December 2013
I've just been on Sky News discussing the Pisa results with Christine Blower, the general secretary of the NUT. She stuck to the same line she trotted out earlier in the Guardian and elsewhere, namely, that the poor performance of British schoolchildren in the Pisa tests is due to poverty and inequality, rather than poor teaching. "It is regrettable but a plain fact that child poverty is the biggest factor limiting children's potential," she told the Guardian. "Life outside the classroom does impact on the ability to learn and is an issue that this and future governments must address."
In fact, if you drill down into the detail of the Pisa report (which you can read here) there's little evidence to back up this analysis. It says British schoolchildren's performance in maths and reading is in line with the OECD average, yet the UK "has a lower share of the most socio-economically deprived groups" than the OECD average. "In the United Kingdom, only six per cent of Pisa students have a very low score on the Pisa index of socio-economic background while on average, across OECD countries this proportion is 15 per cent," it says. If "child poverty" is to blame for Britain's average Pisa scores, as Blower claims, you'd expect the level of child poverty in Britain to be in line with the OECD average. But, actually, it's below average, as you can see from the table below. (To read more, click here.)
Monday 2nd December 2013
Tomorrow morning sees the publication of the latest results in the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), a series of tests taken by 15-year-olds in 66 countries. As you'll have gathered by now if you follow the news, the results show English schoolchildren trailing countries like China, South Korea and Singapore. So, little or no improvement since 2009 when English schoolchildren were last tested. Those results were embarrassing for Labour because they showed that our schoolchildren had slipped down the world rankings since 2000, falling from 8th to 27th in maths, 7th to 25th in reading and 4th to 16th in science. So much for the endlessly improving GCSE and A-level results.
The question is: who's to blame for the latest poor results? According to Tristram Hunt, it's all Michael Gove's fault. Writing in The Sunday Times yesterday, he said, "All his frenetic attention-seeking changes of the past three years – structural reforms, curriculum rewrites, multiplying assessment criteria – have not delivered the step change in standards we need."
But is that really fair? As Gove points out in today's Telegraph, children sat these tests in 2012, making them, in his words, the "Blair/Brown generation". Given that the 15-year-olds in question had been in school for 11 years at that point, it makes more sense to blame the government that was in power for the first nine of those years, rather than the last two. The majority of Gove's reforms haven't kicked in yet, let alone been given a chance to bed down, so it's silly to interpret the Pisa results as a damning verdict on his efforts to raise standards. (For instance, the new National Curriculum won't be taught in schools until next September.) That view was confirmed by Andreas Schleicher, the OECD's head of education, who said at a press conference today that "you could not possibly judge" the coalition's reforms based on the 2013 results. We'll have to wait until the results of the Pisa survey in a decade's time to get a true sense of how effective Gove has been. (To read more, click here.)
Thursday 28th November 2013
Twitter is aflame with people objecting to Boris Johnson's Margaret Thatcher lecture last night, confirming Peter Hitchens's description of the social network as "a left-wing electronic mob". One of the most common criticisms is that Boris ignored the link between high levels of income inequality, which he condoned, and low levels of social mobility, which he condemned. In other words, he wanted to have his cake and eat it – which isn't surprising given that his "policy" on cake is "having it and eating it", as he once confessed. (To read more, click here.)
Thursday 28th November 2013
Damn and blast. I was quite keen on becoming the Conservative candidate for Hammersmith, but the timing isn’t going to work. My hope was that the local association would delay advertising for a candidate until next year, at which point I would have thrown my hat into the ring. Unfortunately, they’re keen to get someone in place straight away and I have too much on my plate at present.
That sounds like an excuse, but it isn’t. If the Conservative candidate in Hammersmith is to have any hope of overturning Andrew Slaughter’s 3,500 majority he or she must devote themselves body and soul to the fight. Slaughter has no life outside politics – no wife, no children, no career to speak of – so he will be able to spend every minute of the day on the campaign. He is ruthless, tireless and implacable. It will be like going up against the cyborg in the Terminator.
I quite fancy playing the John Connor role in this drama – he’s the saviour of mankind in case you’ve forgotten – but I just can’t do it at the moment. (To read more, click here.)
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