Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Now a cloak of invisibility falls on British school standards

By Chris Woodhead

When Labour won the 1997 election the prime minister, much to my amazement, decided both to keep me in the post of chief inspector of schools and to continue the rigorous approach to testing and school inspection the Conservatives had introduced in the late 1980s. That approach was beginning to deliver, and I was happy to stay. By autumn 2000 when I decided I could no longer continue in the post it had become clear that any commitment to rigour was fast declining.

Last week it disappeared completely. The secretary of state for education, Alan Johnson, announced that the government is set to abolish the national curriculum tests children currently take at 7, 11 and 14. Instead, they are to be assessed when they are “ready”, and, if the school does not like the result, then the child can be tested again until, presumably, the desired score is achieved.

This decision is the final nail in the coffin of school accountability. Nobody will know quite how the tests have been administered, and it will be impossible to compare one school to another. At secondary school level “personalised learning” will lead to students taking GCSE and A-level exams at different times. So here, too, comparisons become difficult.

Johnson, of course, pretends otherwise. League tables, he blusters, will still exist. Parents will still be in a position to make an informed choice about the school they wish their child to attend. It is nonsense, of course.

The truth is that ministers will no longer have to face the annual humiliation of admitting that they have failed once again to hit their self-imposed targets for improvements in literacy and numeracy. They will no longer have to try to persuade us, as Jim Knight did last week, that the appalling fact that only 45.3% of 16-year-olds achieve five good GCSE grades including English and maths is actually good news.

What a U-turn. At the beginning Labour made it clear that mastering the basics — being able to read, write and do sums — meant more than anything else. But last week’s revamped government league tables based on five good GCSEs tell a different story. It’s disgraceful that after 10 years fewer than half of 16-year-olds are reaching basic standards in English and maths.

At some schools the difference made by including English and maths in the GCSE tally is stark. At Madeley court comprehensive in Telford, for instance, just 16% of pupils got five good GCSEs including English and maths last year. Before the basic subjects were included in the scoring, the figure was 82% (boosted by entering pupils for a controversial GNVQ in information technology, which counts as a ridiculous four GCSEs).

Parents are expected to make sense of this kind of swing in fortune. They are meant to ponder new “value added” league tables which purport to register how successful schools are in teaching children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds or ethnic minority families. No grammar school appears in the top 100 schools in this league table, and schools which languished at the bottom of the conventional table now shoot miraculously to the top.

Confused? So am I, but don’t worry. We are meant to believe a new educational dawn is about to break. Free from the burden of external scrutiny our teachers will focus on the needs of each of the 30 children in their class. They will adapt the boring constraints of the national curriculum to the interests of each child. Learning is to be “personalised”. Creativity and innovation will flourish.

In some schools, perhaps; in most, I suspect not. The truth is that the government has given up. It has abandoned the reforms which, in time, would have improved education.

Schools, like children, need challenge. Transparency matters. How, after all, are problems in failing schools going to be solved if we do not know which schools are failing? Who really thinks that real teachers in real classrooms can or should respond to the individual needs of each of their pupils? The truth, of course, is that learning cannot be “personalised”. Learning French grammar is learning French grammar. Full stop. Good teachers will help individual pupils overcome their individual problems as they always have, but beyond this platitude the concept of “personalisation” has no meaning.

The rot began with David Blunkett, who, for all his tough public talk, was never comfortable with “naming and shaming” failing schools and who oversaw a review of the national curriculum that emphasised the teaching of “learning skills” over the mastery of factual knowledge.

In 2000 my successor as chief inspector, Mike Tomlinson, announced that in future inspection was to be “something we do with schools rather than to schools”. The school was to be a partner in its own inspection, but, Tomlinson added defensively, “the rigour and objectivity of inspection” will not be affected.

It has, of course. In 2005 a new system of inspection based on the school’s evaluation of its own performance was introduced. The period of time the inspectors spend in the school has been reduced to a day or two. Most teachers will not even see an inspector. So much for rigour and objectivity.


The chewing gum that may aid slimming

An appetite-suppressing injection or even chewing gum could one day be used to tackle Britain's obesity problem. Scientists have been given funding to develop a treatment to help clinically obese patients to "feel full" and to eat less. The injection would contain a naturally occurring hormone that curbs appetite and is often lacking in overweight people. Within a decade the injection could provide the first effective treatment for obesity, which contributes to about 1,300 deaths a week in Britain, the scientists say.

The research, announced today, is among the first projects to benefit from a 91 million pound scheme by the Wellcome Trust to fund new medicines. It promises to be safer and more effective than present treatments, which culminate in drastic "stomach- stapling" operations. The hormone, pancreatic polypeptide (PP), is normally released from the small intestine as food is consumed, signalling to the brain that the body has had enough. In preliminary trials, an intravenous infusion that boosted levels of the hormone led to a big reduction in appetite among healthy volunteers.

Thirty-five healthy volunteers who were given the PP treatment consumed fewer calories, with the effect lasting for about 24 hours. Steve Bloom, who led the research at Imperial College and Hammersmith Hospital, London, said: "Even a 1 per cent reduction in appetite could lead to significant weight loss over a year." Professor Bloom has received a grant of 2.3 million pounds to develop the drug as a longer-lasting weekly injection. Other ways to administer the hormone could include a pump or even chewing gum, he said.



Or where will it end?

An antifascist demonstration has been organised for today's performance of Giselle by English National Ballet principal Simone Clarke - her first since being "outed" as a member of the far-right British National Party. Members of the Unite Against Fascism Coalition will demonstrate at London's Covent Garden today in protest against the "BNP Ballerina's" presence in the show: Arts Council funded English National Ballet has refused to comment on Ms Clarke's political views, which emerged after a Guardian journalist revealed parts of the BNP's membership lists. Clarke claims to support a tough line on immigration and told a newspaper that she joined the party on the urging of her boyfriend, who is Cuban-Chinese.

EURSOC holds no brief for Ms Clarke or her party, though we believe it is her right to join whatever political group she likes. The BNP is certainly far right and racist, (though Ms Clarke may not be the latter if judged on her personal relationships).

But barracking a ballet performance because you disagree with the political views of one of the dancers? We are constantly informed that Israel's "occupation" of Palestinian territory is "racist" and "far right". Will people who claim to support Israel be next? Ulster Unionists, too, enjoy little support among left-leaning groups - will they too be targeted as undesirables, if Clarke is ejected from her position? What about supporters of the war in Iraq or conservative Americans in general?

In any case, where would the arts be without dotty political views? Prominent members of the Redgrave acting dynasty were known for their sympathy for communism; Nobel prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter has dedicated much of his recent career to a particularly infantile form of anti-American rhetoric. He was last spotted kissing the behind of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez - a man who shuts down media organisations which dare to disagree with him.

Film-maker Ken Loach gets UK lottery funding to make anti-British, pro-Irish republican movies. Poet Tom Paulin has called for some Israeli settlers to be shot - as far as we can tell, Simone Clarke has not advocated violence in pursuit of her views. Writer John Berger indulges an affection for masked "militants" in Latin America and called for an absurd and creepy "artists" boycott of Israel.

Surely the arts are about free expression, including the right to emit views that in any other public arena would have you certified. Clarke isn't even expressing her views on the stage - indeed, her affiliation was known to no-one until the Guardian's reporter found her name on the BNP's membership list



One of the strangest things about political activists is that they so rarely understand freedom, the very thing they think they are fighting for. Everyone in this country, even a sugar plum fairy, is entitled to freedom of thought and of speech under the law, but there are countless high-minded activists who do not think so. So it was that a group of Unite Against Fascism activists fetched up at the Coliseum in London on Friday afternoon to demonstrate against the fascist fairy, the “BNP ballerina” Simone Clarke.

She is an exceptional dancer who finds herself at the middle of an even more exceptional political drama. Having danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Nutcracker over the Christmas season, she was soon afterwards exposed as a member of the British National party. On Friday she appeared on stage for the first time since the revelation of her political views in the role of Giselle, only to be booed and hissed by UAF agitators outside the theatre and even inside from the stalls.

“The principal ballerina is a BNP member,” they cried, before they were removed. “No fascism in the arts.” Clarke bravely danced on, however, like a real trouper, smiling throughout; I suppose ballerinas are used to smiling through pain. She was supported in her ordeal, whether she knew it or not, by a bizarre group of champions — 25 members of the BNP, including some of its top brass, and not perhaps your average balletomanes.

How I wish I had been there. All this might be serious in its way, but it is a delicious absurdity too. For one thing the English National Ballet has dancers from 19 countries, some of whom must presumably be immigrants, and possibly dark of skin; I would love to have seen the BNP neo-balletomanes’ faces as they watched these migrant swans leaping about in swathes of floating net and little wings, not to mention several men in pastel tights. How wonderful to think of the skinhead BNP top team supporting all this.

What the UAF activists are trying to achieve is to get Clarke sacked. The English National Ballet has resisted very properly; it has refused to comment on its principal dancer’s opinions, saying her views do not represent the ENB’s views, which in any case does not express any political view. The ENB is in a difficult position though, because it receives 6 million pounds of public money each year from the Arts Council, and this can and will be used by activists to put pressure on the company to distance itself from Clarke. Bectu, the broadcasting workers’ union, is making this demand and Lee Jasper, the race relations adviser to the mayor of London, joined this lamentable demonstration, saying: “The protests will continue . . . English National Ballet have got a real fight on their hands.”

This is a strange story in every way. Despite her fear of mass immigration, Clarke has an immigrant boyfriend of Chinese-Cuban descent, also a dancer; there is a hint of inconsistency here surely, and the BNP certainly finds it a touch embarrassing. And then the protesters in the street, who say that ethnic English people’s fear of immigration is nothing but irrational racism, rather undermined their own case by shouting “We are Muslim, black and Jew, there are many more of us than you” — by this threat confirming that a fear of mass immigration is not merely irrational racism. Brilliant.

All these big bold men lined up against a single rather underweight woman; it is not an edifying spectacle. If only they had the intellectual modesty that she has shown. Explaining to a newspaper that she’d been drawn to the BNP by watching the news and by their manifesto, she said: “I am not too proud to say that a lot of it went over my head, but some of the things they mentioned were things I think about all the time, mainly mass immigration, crime and increased taxes.” The world might be a better place if more people were not too proud to admit that things are complex and difficult to understand.

It is clearly too difficult for Friday’s activists to understand that free speech is indivisible. Perhaps they have forgotten the McCarthy era in America, when performing artists, particularly in Hollywood, were outed, sacked and ruined for their pro-communist views (real or alleged). That was entirely wrong, I hardly need say. But there are plenty of people, including me, who think that pro-Trotsky, pro-Stalin, pro-Mao communism, and all kinds of views expressed by people in the arts to this day, are hateful and despicable, and, I think, a great deal worse than the BNP.

That has never prompted real lovers of freedom to try to silence them; real lovers of freedom accept that to repress one hated view is as bad as repressing its opposite. It will only strengthen the hated view; by contrast the openness of freedom will weaken it, if it is wrong, as the heroic JS Mill so eloquently argued.

Besides, why should anyone take the political views of artists seriously? I know that everyone does these days, and pop stars such as Bono are called upon to pontificate on matters of global concern. But the fact that they are famous and talented does not mean that their views are worth paying attention to (rather as the BNP ballerina’s views are of no interest).

There is no law of nature according to which artists must of their nature be rational, sensible and well judging; rather the reverse tends to be true, because the arts have to do with risk, danger, experiment, originality and inconsistency. They are born out of anger, resentment, joy, contrariness and wildness, with the result that few artists have ever been balanced and well-informed political or moral philosophers.

In fact if artists were judged on their views, theatres and galleries and bookshops would be almost empty. If sensible people had tried to bring down artists of bad and daft political views we would have had no Vanessa Redgrave and no Harold Pinter. Should we ban Brecht from the stage because of his support for the odious East German regime? Come off it. People who loathe their views may love their talents. It is high time that liberals, luvvies and political activists started either to defend free speech, or stopped pretending to.


A good comment from a reader of the above:

"I was in the audience for this performance and I didn't see any BNP 'skinheads' at all, if the BNP were there and I'm they were then they blended perfectly into a respectable audience. The only 'skinhead thugs' I saw were of the left-wing 'UAF' variety - so brave they arrived in a screaming mob to bully a tiny ballerina. Strange people for Tory David Cameron to ally himself with? Seems like the BNP are one of the most moderate groups around these days. Seems like the extremists are in power or even in opposition....."

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