Tuesday, 31 July 2012

On military schools.

Written for the Young Fabian's Anticipations magazine.

Stephen Twigg’s recent show of support for military schools has provoked some very strong reactions, both positive and negative. Although this policy has yet to be fully fleshed out, so the full conception of the schools yet to be seen, it is unlikely that this idea will solve all the problems of inequality of opportunity, nor will it create a country of child soldiers. Potentially, military schools could have real, practical advantages in their ability to deal with poor discipline and equipped pupils with skills that academic education alone often does not, but that does not mean there are not potential pitfalls and problems with this policy.

Many schools – across the spectrum in terms of academic achievement – are not very good at teaching team work, leadership, public speaking or other inter-personal skills; with the solitary task of exam passing dominating the syllabus. Incorporating these skills into every day education could be incredibly beneficial in terms of individuals’ confidence and self-esteem, as well as provide them with skills which are vital in so many careers, but often neglected in education.

Physical education, meanwhile, is in many, if not most schools is seen as something additional to the body of your learning; you have your time to run around and do sport, and then you have your time in the classroom; and never the twain shall meet. But our health and our level of physical activity affect the rest of our lives; our concentration and our productivity as well as our mental health. Really good physical education as a cornerstone of the curriculum has so much potential to improve pupils’ awareness of and relationship with their bodies and their health for the rest of their lives.

And of course, discipline. The idea of “military style” discipline in schools may make many recoil; but the stereotypical image of the barking army general is unlikely to enter our classrooms. Panorama’s episode on soldiers turned teachers (Classroom Warriors; you can watch it here and it’s defiantly worth checking out when thinking about this issue) highlighted the impact having ex-army officers in the classroom has had on discipline both in this country and in the US; transforming discipline at schools which have had problems with bad behaviour through techniques that ensure a sense of mutual respect between student and teacher.

Linking the schools with the cadets could help the power of schooling and education extend beyond the classroom. A problem that even the best schools in deprived areas often face is that at the end of the day a child goes back to their parents, and if those parents aren’t properly supporting their child, a lot of the work done at school can be instantly undone. Extending the reach a school can have in educating, encouraging and supporting a child beyond the normal school day could greatly enhance the potential for education to break cycles of deprivation.

This strategy has its risks; by mandating certain types of extracurricular activities, the time a child has to explore their own individual interests and passions would be limited. However, if this project was effectively targeted (Twigg highlighted deprived areas as the focus of the scheme), its pupils would be most likely be children who lack any kind of extracurricular education or real encouragement and stimulation outside the classroom; whether or not they end up pursuing a military career, being part of the cadets would be more beneficial than simply having no outside interests at all. None the less, perhaps the mandate for participation in the cadets could be relaxed for pupils showing other ways that they are continuing their development and education outside of school.

And there are other reasons to tread cautiously with this idea. Although skills honed in the military are potentially transferable to the teaching profession, former soldiers are not all going to be, without a doubt, great teachers; encouraging soldiers into the teacher profession must not mean they receive insufficient training.

Additionally, the schools must not be too specialised; children must come out with the same broad education that will equip them to have a variety of opportunities in life (of course this is compatible with some specialisation; many schools now already specialise in one field or another while still providing a comprehensive education).

One of the strongest reactions against this idea has stemmed from the worry that these schools would be de facto recruitment grounds for the army and the reserves. Reading the original ResPublica report on military schools, you can understand this worry; the report advocates increasing recruitment to the reserves as one of the key potential benefits of military schools; and this is something to steer well clear of, simply because no school where entrants are as young as eleven should be pushing those children towards any specific career path. These schools, if they are to work, must be about creating good people, not creating good soldiers.  

But, in the best possible scenario, military schools have the potential to create a more holistic education, where academic learning is linked to physical within an ethos of hard work, self-worth, team work and discipline. It might be argued that improved discipline, mandatory extra curricular activities, an increased emphasis on physical education and inter-personal skills; all these things can be delivered without the need for a link with the military. On the other hand, the military already provides a structure, an overarching concept, and people with the skills necessary to create this educational structure; a structure that might not be for everyone, but placed within the wider pool of educational choice, has the potential to benefit a lot of children. Of course, like any policy; it would have to be done right; there are a lot of potential pitfalls. But let’s explore this and really think about it; not dismiss it out of hand, nor embrace it without question.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Leveson: The Musical

I can't be the only one thinking that the grand finale of the Leveson Inquiry would have been better if it had featured jazz hands?

A little number for the witnesses (well, some of them), to the tune of the list of colours in Joseph's Coat from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. 

It was Brooks and Murdoch and Grant and Hunt 
And Coulson and Blair and Cameron and Piers 
And Riddell and Johnson and Watson and Marr 
And Mohan and Yates and Rowling and Gove 
And Clarke and Campbell and Osborne and Ed 
And Harman and Salmond and Prescott and Clarke 
And Coogan and Black and Hughes and Gordon 
And Snow and Hardgreaves and Crone and Straw
And Barber and Clegg and Boulton and Leigh
And Thomas and Hislop and Harding and Cave
And Major and Bowe and Mandelson and Crown 
And Wright and Blackhurt and Turner and Fox 
And Paxman and Diamond and Morgan and Grade
And Brady and Wright and Quick and James 
And Jay!

And of course a number for Leveson and Jay, to the tune of the Muppet theme song:

It’s time to fine the papers,
It’s time to jail some hacks,
It’s time to tell the journos they’re not getting any slack.

It’s time for us to publish;
It’s time for our report;
It’s time to raise the curtain on the answers we have sought.

Why did we need to do this?
Our press was being bad;
Corruption and phone hacking 
Which made the public mad.

So we ran an inquiry 
Witnesses from far and wide
To testify before us

On the most sensational
This is what we call The Leveson Show!

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

On young people in the Labour Party...

Recently I went to two back to back events; the first put on by the Fabian Society, the second by the Young Fabians. The first, the Fabian Society’s Annual House of Commons Tea, was a discussion about how to better engage people in politics, while the Young Fabian event was a discussion about how to get young people more engaged in politics.

I assumed I wouldn’t be the only person attending both these event back to back; as it turns out I was only one of two. And in the House of Commons Tea there was quite a notable lack of young people (which is a bit of a blurry term, so broadly speaking I’m talking about typically student age, or younger). Of course, it should be noted that the Young Fabian event was free while the Commons Tea cost £15, and the Young Fabian event being held in the evening may also have made it more accessible, but this does reflect a trend I am  increasingly aware of in the events I attend; that with the exceptions of big, national events (National Conference, Progress Conference, Fabian Conference; although even the Fabian’s summer conference had very few young attendees) young people tend to attend “young people” events; Young Labour, Labour Students, Young Fabians etc, but seem less inclined to attend events not specifically aimed at young people.

I often get asked at such events “how do we get young people into politics?” and it always confuses me because I know so many incredibly politically active young people…but then I’ll look around the room and realise that I am one of very few young people there.

This is not to say that there aren’t problems of political apathy in my generation (both in terms of a general disinterest and a dissatisfaction with mainstream politics; two rather different issues that are often clumsily grouped together), but that I can understand why some people would be forgiven for thinking there are hardly any young politicos at all; which is just not true.

As I said, this isn’t the case with big, national events; but it’s also untrue on the campaign trail. When activists are out on the doorstep, there is a clear mix of age groups, and young activists are almost without a doubt out in force.

So why, when it comes to events, might young people be so much less inclined to attend events not specifically aimed at them? Perhaps there is a worry that, as someone younger, you’ll be patronised/ignored/etc. Personally I’ve never experienced this, but I can understand why it might be a worry for some people.

Young Labour, Young Fabian and Labour Student’s event are also, I’ve often found, more discursive than events not aimed at young people; with a far more open format than the “panel that talks after which people ask the panel questions” format; where the audience is really able to engage in discussion and debate. This explanation does become rather circular, though; are young people drawn to more discussion based events, or are they better at putting on more discussion based events?

Do young people just need…some sort of hook; something to tell them “you! This event is for you!”. The other exception I’ve seen to the young-people-not-attending-not-young-people-aimed-events was the recent Fabian Women’s network summer reception, at which there were plenty of people my age; these were all women (as, of course, were most of the attendees; but not all); so not drawn in by the fact that this event was aimed at them as young people, but that it was still specifically aimed at them as women. Perhaps. This is just speculation.

And this whole post is really just speculation and personal reflection; I’d be interested to hear how far it reflects other people’s experiences; young people who feel they only really attend young people events, or that they attend a range of events, older people who feel they do or don’t see young people at the events they go to etc.

Because if this sense I’ve got of this generational divide between activists is accurate; I don’t think that’s that great a thing. I love the younger wings of the party; I think they hold amazing events and are full of amazing people, and I think having these events and groups aimed specifically at young people is without a doubt a good thing. But when these become the only parts of the party young people really interactive they can become somewhat inward looking; and I don’t think that helps young people understand or feel part of the wider movement.

That’s, of course, just the problem; I have a few thoughts on why this might happen and I want to start exploring potential solutions. But it’s only something I’ve recently come to really register; and it’s not something I ever really hear discussed when we talk about young people in the Labour movement; so I thought that it was at least worth pointing out.