Monthly Archives: October 2013

Imagination, learning and the poverty of shallow souls

Minister for Exams

When I was a child I sat an exam.
This test was so simple
There was no way i could fail.

Q1. Describe the taste of the Moon.

It tastes like Creation I wrote,
it has the flavour of starlight.

Q2. What colour is Love?

Love is the colour of the water a man
lost in the desert finds, I wrote.

Q3. Why do snowflakes melt?

I wrote, they melt because they fall
on to the warm tongue of God.

There were other questions.
They were as simple.

I described the grief of Adam
when he was expelled from Eden.
I wrote down the exact weight of 
an elephant’s dream

Yet today, many years later,
For my living I sweep the streets
or clean out the toilets of the fat

Why? Because constantly I failed
my exams.
Why? Well, let me set a test.

Q1. How large is a child’s
Q2. How shallow is the soul of the
Minister for exams? 

Brian Patten
Higher education staff from three unions are taking industrial action today to protest at the employers’ 1% pay offer. This is the fourth consecutive year that pay in the sector will increase at a rate less than inflation. I have some sympathy with those staff groups who were already on comparatively low wages and who have therefore been most badly affected by the real terms reduction in pay over the period. Equally, the sector (in common with the rest of the public sector) is facing an unprecedented squeeze on resources and every penny spent on increasing wages will need to be saved from elsewhere. In reality, this will mean fewer jobs in the sector in total. It’s a classic catch-22 situation
For me, though, the real challenge facing the HE sector in the UK at the moment is not the financial squeeze linked to austerity and the need for the economy as a whole to be re-balanced. Rather – and this is where the Patten poem comes in – it is the seemingly inexorable journey of higher education (and education generally) from something which is predominantly about the pursuit of learning by active participants in the process, towards something that is packaged, commoditised and purchased by consumers in a market-place. It is the difference between a system that is about allowing people to explore the wide open spaces of the imagination, and one that delivers the minimum depth necessary to justify the award of a qualification. This is not a misty-eyed, nostalgic plea for a return to some mythical past where HE was better. Much of what has changed in the past 30 years has been an improvement : increased accessibility (despite – or perhaps even – because of changes to the funding arrangements in recent years); improvements in assessment practice that have made awards more robust and comparable between institutions; an emphasis on the quality of the student experience. These are all things to be applauded
However, there has been a too-ready preparedness to see students as consumers of education, and to seek to transactionalise the learning process : students pay their fees and ‘receive’ an education that is then exchanged at the end of the process for a ‘degree’. There are a number of dangers associated with this approach. First and foremost, it distances the student from the learning process. Education has to be participatory if it is to lead to lasting change and improvement at an individual level. Learning is not something that can be done to you – you have to be an active part of the process. In addition, though, education as a product places the emphasis on the output of the learning (the degree certificate) rather than the outcome (the extent to which the student develops her/his own ability to learn). Increasingly, new entrants to the HE sector are leaving secondary schools without ever having developed the skills associated with enquiry, research, and the ability to synthesise information from a variety of sources to develop their own analyses or theories around the subjects that they have studied. They are superb at reproducing the content that has been given to them by their teachers and then reinforced through repeated assessment and examination; but their ability to critically evaluate that content or to suggest alternative analyses of it is not something that features very highly in current GCSE and A level syllabuses
However, the skills associated with rigorous enquiry, research, synthesis, and skeptical questioning of received wisdom, are precisely the skills that are most highly prized in the workplace. Employees need to be able to challenge the status quo in a rational and reasoned way – to ask difficult questions about the way things are done if it appears that there are better ways of doing them. That is how the best organisations make the breakthroughs that enable them to thrive in difficult economic and/or market conditions – the sorts of conditions that are likely to prevail for at least the next decade. The challenge for HE institutions will be to persuade prospective students that they are the best places to support them on that learning journey – and that the support justifies the fee and living cost loans that the student will accrue along the way. It’s a much more difficult message to get across than “Come to us and get a degree!”

Am I certain? It all depends…

I’ve been prompted to write this post by coverage of Tommy Robinson’s decision to quit as leader of the English Defence League, apparently in response to the time that he has spent with Mohammed Ansar and Maajid Nawaz following an appearance on BBC’s The Biq Questions earlier in the year. (You can see the whole story in a BBC documentary tomorrow evening (28th October), with details here : I have no idea whether Robinson’s resignation from the EDL represents a genuine change of heart, or whether there are other, more cynical motives at play. I guess that people will have the opportunity to reach their own conclusions having watched the documentary tomorrow

What interests me is that this looks to be another example of a case where somebody holding apparently unshakeable and deeply rooted beliefs and opinions finds that the foundation for those beliefs can quickly disintegrate in the face of a direct challenge. In Robinson’s case, an invitation from Ansar for him to share a meal with Ansar’s family, lead to him discovering a side to Islam that he had never previously been exposed to. For triple jump Olympic champion, Jonathan Edwards, it was the change in his life following his retirement from competitive sport that led him to re-evaluate and eventually to renounce his Christian faith. It’s a journey that is not new, and for a current account of somebody else who is travelling it, I heartily recommend that you take a look here : – a blog that in many ways I wish I was writing, as it resonates so strongly with so much of my own experience in the past 12 months

I recently happened across a quote from Bertrand Russell that goes to the heart of my own beliefs and approach to life at the moment. Wikipedia defines philosophy as “the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with realityexistenceknowledgevaluesreasonmind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational argument.” This is the context within which the Russell quote needs to be read :

“The [person] who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual tenets of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a [person], the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected”

In a world where there is so much uncertainty, where so little seems to make very much sense, it can be comforting to cling onto the certainties offered by religion or dogmatic politics or narrowly jingoistic patriotism. It is much more difficult, it seems to me, to retain an open mind – looking for the positive opportunities that may flow from Russell’s unfamiliar possibilities. Equally, of course, I might have got it completely wrong!

Abuse it and lose it : amateur sport in a consumer society

I’m going to declare an interest from the outset : I am currently a football referee in local leagues (junior and senior) in Cardiff, and I have over 40 years of participation in amateur (ie unpaid) organisation of sport that has allowed me to play, coach or officiate in football, rugby, cricket, badminton, basketball, and running, in places across the UK and even into Europe. The people that I’ve met and the experiences that I have enjoyed as a result have enriched my life beyond measure. I am also the current Secretary of the Cardiff (football) Referees’ Society

Two incidents in recent weeks have caused me to reflect on a trend that has been gathering momentum for a while, but which appears to be in danger of becoming a crisis. In the first, I received a report of a referee who had allegedly been verbally abused, physically assaulted and spat at during a local league football game, leading to the abandonment of the match. What makes this much worse though, is that the match was a junior game (under 15s) and the players were apparently being ‘egged on’ by their coaches and supporters to carry out the alleged acts. The matter is currently under investigation by the local FA and a hearing will follow in due course

The second incident occurred yesterday and involved abuse directed at the volunteer organiser of a local, weekly running event in Cardiff. The event (which I have participated in on four or five occasions since August) is hugely popular (typically over 400 runners take part each week) and is wholly dependent on volunteer organisers and marshalls for its successful operation. It’s continuation may now be under threat as a result of the events of yesterday (although the groundswell of support for the organiser on social media since yesterday will hopefully act as an antidote to the understandable anger that he felt immediately afterwards)

What concerns me about these incidents (and they are unfortunately neither unique nor even particularly rare these days) is that they will simply drive people away from involvement in organising and participating in local, grass-roots sporting activities. It is already unusual for local parks football teams to find themselves with a league appointed referee more than about once a month (and there have been occasions in recent weeks when one of the local leagues has been able to appoint referees to only one third of its scheduled matches). Worse than that, though, is the impact that inappropriate behaviour has on participation. Anecdotally, I have been told of youngsters who have been put off playing rugby and football in south Wales because of the hostile atmosphere that is a far too regular feature of matches. Almost invariably this emanates from parents, coaches and others on the sidelines rather than from players on the pitch (and this is certainly my experience as a referee too). Unfortunately, however, the atmosphere on the sideline all too often spills over into behaviour on the pitch

There’s probably a PhD to be written on the apparent causes of this decline in standards of behaviour at local amateur events that should primarily be about participation, development and enjoyment. It’s likely that it’s down to a number of factors : an increasing sense that we are all consumers now, rather than participants, and that anything that falls below our sense of what we are entitled to gives us just cause to complain loudly and persistently until we elicit a response; a general decline in any sense of respect for authority; a lack of understanding that volunteers are there because they choose to be, not because they need or have to be; ubiquitous media coverage of the poor behaviour of professional sports people and an often hostile attitude amongst commentators and summarisers towards officials and administrators of professional sport

And what can be done about it? There is clearly a need to act decisively and quickly to address bad behaviour. Local leagues and area associations need to ensure that they are visible at places where matches are taking place, and are able to see and be seen to be monitoring the behaviour of coaches and spectators in support of officials, players and the good name of the sport that they represent. Equally, and on the basis that promoting good behaviour can be as powerful as sanctioning bad, clubs and participants that act in a sporting and (to use an old-fashioned but pertinent term) Corinthian manner need to be formally recognised and rewarded for that

Sport can be an incredible force for good, improving and maintaining physical and social well-being, and acting as a means of social cohesion, bringing together people from different backgrounds and perspectives in a common purpose. It diminishes us all when the poor behaviour of a small minority leads to a loss of opportunity to participate for the many

Tearing down the fences and disabling the ambulances

Building fences at the top of the cliff, rather than providing ambulances at the bottom was the rationale for the work that was led by the Legal Services Commission to provide better access to quality assured advice and assistance under the banner of the Community Legal Service (subsequently totally dismantled by Brown’s Labour government and the ConDem Coalition). The theory (espoused most eloquently by Prof Richard Susskind at the time) was that it was better (and cheaper) to prevent people from injuring themselves by falling off the cliff in the first place, than it was to provide a world-class ambulance service to pick them up from the rocks at the bottom of the cliff. It’s a philosophy which still seems to be fundamentally sound

It is, however, an approach that appears to have been completely ignored in the welfare reforms that are being driven through by the Coalition. Reforms to housing benefit will drive people out of their homes and communities and into smaller units (if they’re available – and they won’t be available in sufficient numbers everywhere, as the Welsh Select Committee has reported today : or into temporary shelter or onto the streets otherwise. Removing housing benefit on a sliding scale from people who find themselves in a house that is marginally too big for them seems like a perfect example of fence destruction

Equally, pressure on Job Centres and the Department of Work and Pensions to reduce the number of people in receipt of benefits is leading to a significant increase in families who suddenly find themselves without any money at all due to some technical breach of the claimant rules. Examples include those who are unable to sign-on on their designated day because they are attending a job interview, then being refused their job seeker’s allowance. In this context, it is hardly surprising that the number of individuals and families dependent on food banks has increased threefold in the past 12 months. The government suggestion that this is because there are more food banks now than there were is so ridiculous as to be almost laughable. As was pointed out by a Twitter commentator, it’s like blaming the growth in Red Cross services around the world for an increase in earthquakes!

The problems that are now starting to become more and more apparent in terms of the impact of the welfare reform programme are compounded by the fact that a small number of private sector organisations are doing very nicely thank you from the privatisation of the services that are meant to be supporting the most vulnerable people. Atos generates a handsome return for shareholders by running disability assessment centres that are difficult to find, hard to access and which reach decisions that are often flawed in fact or based on very partial interpretations of medical information (see Private Eye editions for pretty much the whole of the past year for specific examples). The government response to the increase in the number of successful appeals against Atos assessments is to make it more difficult to appeal – remove the fence and then remove the wheels from the ambulances!

Frustratingly, it seems that neither the Lib Dems nor the Labour party feel able to offer any meaningful alternative to the current, dysfunctional, destabilising and inherently unfair reforms. Almost unbelievably, the Milburn Report ( published today suggests that one way of creating space to support those struggling to cope on low wages is to remove universal benefits from pensioners. Leaving aside the fact that the amount paid out in the few remaining universal benefits amount to less than 2% of the total budget for pensioner benefits, it is almost impossible to conceive of a Labour politician in opposition proposing the abolition of ANY universal benefit. It seems that more than ever before, there is no point in voting in the next general election – whoever wins, the government still gets in!


He wouldn’t let it lie…

I wasn’t going to get drawn into the whole “freedom of the press, post-Leveson regulation, what the Mail said about Miliband-senior” debate; not because there wasn’t a lot that I wanted to say, but mainly because I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to write anything coherent, such was my deep anger and dismay at so much of what’s been published in the name of ‘journalism’ in the past couple of weeks. That changed this morning when I casually happened upon this tweet from Rupert Murdoch’s account :

Certain sections of the press have been running with a line which can be effectively summarised as “we need a free and relatively unregulated print and broadcast media as part of the essential checks and balances in a democratic society”. Occasionally, this will mean that things will be published that are offensive or damaging to some people, but this is justifiable in the context of the greater good that is served by holding politicians and officials to account for their actions in “our” name. This was the general conclusion of the panellists on yesterday’s Andrew Marr programme. It is a position that has some merit

The problem is that it only works in practice if the editors and publishers of our press and media act in a way that is honourable, decent and in the best traditions of investigative journalism, where truth and the exposure of corruption, hypocrisy and duplicitousness are the principal motivations for publication

The Mail ‘investigation’ that sought to besmirch Ralph Miliband as a Communist hater of Britain on the basis of a few carefully edited extracts from a 17 year old’s diaries written over 70 years’ ago, is neither investigative journalism nor even news. It is a pathetic attempt to discredit the son through the partial use of the youthful writings of the father. It is an abuse of the freedom of the press that calls into question the whole basis of the current ‘contract’ within which newspapers and the media operate in the UK

But it is not something that is restricted to the Mail. The Murdoch tweet reveals a contempt for public opinion (and more than that, wider public intelligence) that would be shameful in anyone, but which is alarming in the context of somebody who (despite all his protestations to the contrary) continues to wield an oppressive influence over the editorial policy of large swathes of the print and broadcast media in the UK. The vast majority of those whose privacy was invaded by illegal ‘phone-hacking and other dubious practice (as detailed at the Leveson enquiry) were neither Toffs nor even people who had sought fame or publicity

MPs will discuss proposals to take press regulation out of the hands of editors and publishers later this week. On balance, I hope that they stick to their guns and make clear to Murdoch, Dacre and the like that with freedom must come responsibility. It’s not something that will be knew to them – they’ve been preaching it to the rest of us for years!

My favourite books 1 : Ash on a young man’s sleeve – Dannie Abse

Dannie Abse was interviewed on BBC Wales news recently, marking his 90th birthday and the publication of what he is describing as his final anthology of new poetry (although he hasn’t ruled out editing future collections of work in the future). The warmth of character, quiet wisdom and still-sharp wit displayed throughout the interview (you can see details here : ) reminded me how much I have enjoyed reading (and re-reading) Abse’s first novel “Ash on a young man’s sleeve” over a period of almost thirty years now

The book was first recommended to me by Mr Rees, an inspirational A level English teacher at Llanedeyrn High School, who gave each of the five of us in the class what would now be described as a ‘bucket list’ of books to read to supplement the set texts for that year’s syllabus. To be honest, I initially plumped for “Ash” because it was a relatively slim volume, and because it was set in places that were very familiar to me (Abse was born and brought up in the Roath area of Cardiff, and the book describes his early life living in that leafy suburb, with additional insights into trips to far-off Ogmore, and the Rhondda Valley above Pontypridd). But if those were the reasons for starting the book, what drew me into it (and what has prompted me to go back to it at least once every two to three years since) is the beautiful lyricism of the prose, and Abse’s ability to evoke the drama and tension that often everyday activities assume when seen through the eyes of a somewhat precocious, pre-pubescent boy with a somewhat over-active imagination

Set in the 1930s, in the period immediately before the Second World War, the book is a brilliant social commentary on what it is to be young in a provincial city at that time. Abse describes the friends (and enemies) that grow up alongside him, emphasising what they have in common whilst at the same time wryly acknowledging the differentness that his Jewish heritage bestows on his family and the minority of other Jews in the area. There is an innocent naivety in the narrative that is all the more poignant when viewed through the lens of the events that were starting to unfold across mainland Europe at the same time

My initial intention when starting this piece was to include some ‘taster’ quotations and paraphrases of key incidents, but I realise that to do so would both reveal my own lack of skill in adequately capturing the richness and colour of Abse’s prose, and diminish the impact of the individual passages of text by removing them from the wider context of the book. All I can really do, therefore, is to encourage you (if you haven’t already done so) to get hold of a copy; and if you haven’t re-read it for a while, to do so again very soon!