Why Class-Based Expectations of Education Need to be Undone

24 Aug

Aditya Chakrabortty writes in today’s Guardian that:

Those from the upper- and middle-classes who go to Oxbridge will do fine – as they were always going to do. But Blair’s dream of a working-class kid getting a degree that would catapult him or her up the social ladder has not come off. Instead, they’ll probably end up doing similar work to their school-leaver parents – only with a debilitatingly large debt around their necks…

the reason the Great Degree Scramble has not paid off in better jobs is because Labour did not try to provide them. That would have required nurturing new businesses and raising conditions for the most awful jobs – the sort of thing Blair and his party emphatically did not do…

Up until the mid-90s, Switzerland – one of the richest and most industrialised nations in the world – sent only 10-15% of students off to get a degree. But it made sure the others had apprenticeships with actual businesses and vocational training. There must, surely, be a lesson in that.

Chakrabortty is absolutely right to argue that Labour failed to do enough to improve working conditions or to provide enough in the way of vocational training. They emphasised the virtues of a university education without doing enough to say why work-based training was worthwhile. But Labour’s aims of increasing working class access to university were admirable despite their questionable means (top-up fees) of achieving those aims.

Critics of the explosion in university applications rarely appear to expect anyone other than the working classes to be the ones who should stop going to university. Chakrabortty follows this trend when he unquestioningly contrasts the failure of the working class students to profit from their university education with the continuing ability of upper- and middle- class graduates to enter highly-paid or highly-valued work. He seems to write with an underlying assumption that it’s normal and right for middle- and upper- class A-Level students to go to university and for working-class students to move into vocational training.

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38 Degrees’ Strategy is Spoiling the Potential of Email

10 Aug

I wrote in May (twice!) about the problems involved with 38 Degrees offering its users the ability to email MPs without having to write their own message. At the time the Labour MP Tom Watson was complaining about receiving  1700 identical or near-identical emails about PR. Now, a request from Dominic Raab, the Conservative MP for Esher and Walton, that 38 Degrees remove his email address from their system due to being overwhelmed by emails has provoked outrage from the campaign group.

Raab’s argument that it’s impossible to deal with huge amounts of identical emails is completely understandable. Yes, the taxpayer does pay his wages and should be able to expect him to read and reply to correspondence but this correspondence surely has to be original and unique to warrant his attention. Email, when used in the right way, does have the potential to be a highly useful tool for those without the time or money to lobby MPs. But it’s a huge waste of time and money to have Raab and other MPs’ staff trawling through thousands of indistinguishable emails from 38 Degrees users. Indeed, 38 Degrees’ strategy is proving to be counterproductive in that it is obviously forcing MPs to spend more time working out the logistics of reading the emails and less time actually acting on the issues dealt with in the emails.

38 Degrees’ strategy is not beyond reform. I provided 38 Degrees with a reasonably detailed set of proposals for altering their system back in May. I got some positive feedback from their team but they don’t seem to have changed their strategy in the months since then. One proposal was to ensure that emails sent to MPs are written by individuals and not by the campaign organisers. This is easily achievable by not providing a pre-written message for users, automatically ensuring originality. It would of course still be possible to offer a series of style tips and campaign points to assist the website’s users

There are several advantages to writing original emails (and letters) to MPs. They get a reply from the MP and maybe from a government minister. They provide useable evidence of their constituents’ feelings for MPs to cite in parliamentary debate. They also show an individual’s strength of feeling on an issue in a way that adding your name to a message written by the campaign group doesn’t.

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‘Late-Blooming’ Lesbians and Incomplete Views of Fluid Sexuality

23 Jul

I read a hugely disturbing article [paywalled] in The Sunday Times a couple of weeks ago on ‘late-blooming’ lesbians. There’s a very similar article from the Sunday Telegraph that’s freely available here. Here’s a brief summary of the Times’s reporting of studies into women’s fluid sexuality:

Researchers have found that many women switch their preferences once they pass the age of 30 because of a biological “fluidity” in their sexual orientation that is much more common than in men.

The phenomenon, whose discovery has taken researchers by surprise, suggests lesbianism could be more widespread than previously thought. While many women could be future lesbians without knowing it, others may already have switched but be concealing their sexuality to keep their families together…

Most textbooks assume that, as with men, women’s sexual preferences are partly genetic and become fixed in the teens and early twenties, with relatively few changing sexuality later in life…

a series of studies have shown that in reality women’s sexual orientation may become more fluid as they grow older, with many developing lesbian or bisexual tendencies after the age of 30…

Researchers believe the phenomenon of fluid sexuality is far more common in women than men. “Women have a uniquely female potential for periodic shifts in sexuality over time,” said Christan Moran, a researcher at Southern Connecticut State University…

for many women, love and desire are not heterosexual or homosexual but fluid concepts, changing as women grow older, changing their social groups and relationships.

I’m certain a lot of people will view these findings not as evidence of women ‘developing lesbian tendencies’ in later life but of women who have always been lesbians finally feeling comfortable enough to express their desires publically.

What struck me most about the article though (and by extension the studies) was the way it repeatedly set up women’s fluidity in opposition to men’s stablility. It continually referred to how women’s sexuality is fluid in a way men’s isn’t. It almost felt like it was saying “yes some women will become lesbians in later life, but wives don’t worry, it won’t happen to your husband and don’t worry men either, it definitely won’t happen to you.”

As the article acknowledges, it is simply inconceivable that genetic makeup is the sole reason why some women express a variety of sexualities throughout their lives. Similarly, non-genetic factors play a huge role in some women’s repression of same-sex desires. As one of the researchers Christan Moran points out in the Sunday Telegraph’s article:

many women who develop lesbian feelings in later life refuse to “come out” for fear of society’s reaction…

To leave a heterosexual marriage in favour of lesbian identity is to abdicate enormous and undeniable privilege.

This is a perfectly acceptable position which could be drawn out to build a theory of how women come to express their sexuality or sexualities. One possible theory stemming from this could see women as having a genetic makeup which offers a certain range of sexual identities and a myriad of environmental conditions allow them to be aware of or feel comfortable expressing various positions within that range. This would take into account the environmental as well as the genetic in the forming of sexuality and presumes neither a predetermined outcome nor a sexuality completely free of genetic influence. The problem is that it’s apparently unthinkable to these researchers that this theory, or anything similar, could be applied to men.

Moran and others take it for granted that it’s men’s genes which are responsible for their apparently stable sexuality. If though we are to accept that women’s sexuality is unstable, it must be problematic to see men as necessarily of a single, stable and essential sexuality. It’s strange and hypocritical to hold the position that genes don’t determine everything in the case of women’s sexuality and simultaneously to assume that genes are the only factor in men’s sexuality.

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The Underperforming Lib-Dems and Implications for the AV Campaign

21 Jul

Over my month away from blogging I’ve absolutely lost the sense that the Lib-Dems are making the best possible use of their prominent position in government. Indeed, they don’t really seem to be softening the impact of the Tories’ plans either. After the heights of Nick Clegg’s speech on reform of the electoral system and Parliament’s Upper House, the Lib-Dems appear to have lost their voice at the heart of government. Opinion polls are beginning to reflect this. According to a YouGov poll published yesterday, only 40% of Lib-Dem voters at the General Election approve of the coalition’s performance compared to 36% who disapprove. Similarly, only 46% of Lib-Dem voters at the General Election would vote for them in another General Election today.

It isn’t a huge leap to suggest that a drop in support for the Lib-Dems could lead to defeat for the ‘Yes’ campaign in the referendum on the Alternative Vote. In another YouGov poll published yesterday, AV’s lead over FPTP was down from 13% a fortnight ago to just a single percent. As much as supporters of the ‘Yes’ campaign will try to avoid this, the referendum could all too easily end up being a poll of the public’s view of the Lib-Dems.

As the main parliamentary advocates of electoral reform, the Lib-Dems have a huge responsibility to keep a strong, distinctive and successful role within the government. It’s important that they show that coalition government – slightly more likely under AV – works. Equally important though is that they ensure that they, as the party which will be campaigning hardest for AV, keep to the principles that their supporters voted for at the last General Election. It will be nigh-on impossible for AV to be passed without Lib-Dem voters voting in favour of it. Unfortunately, the Lib-Dems seem to be forgoing the principles upon which they were elected which has of course been reflected in their poll numbers.

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Constructions of Fathers in New Labour’s Discourse

20 Jun

My first post on this blog was a brainstorm of ideas for my undergraduate dissertation. I eventually settled on the third option; an analysis of how fathers and fatherhood have been treated in UK public policy. The full version of the dissertation is available here. I’m considering writing a journalistic version of it to make it easier to understand.

This is the abstract and should let you know the gist of the work and whether you want to read it or not: Continue reading

Covert Surveillance and the Digital Economy Act 2010

20 Jun

I wrote an essay titled ‘The Disciplining of Behaviour in an Online Panopticon: A Foucauldian Perspective on the Digital Economy Act 2010′ which is available here. I’m considering writing a journalistic version of the essay to make it more accessible.

Here are some excerpts from the introduction to this essay:

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Does Contemporary Feminism Need a New Name?

15 Jun

I am firmly of the view that the feminist goal of achieving freedom for all genders needs a widespread re-appraisal of masculinity and manhood in order to succeed. The issue of paternity and maternity leave in Britain offers an excellent example of this. Because fathers are still predominantly perceived as breadwinners and mothers as carers, fathers receive weeks of paternity leave as opposed to the months of maternity leave which mothers receive. Employers’ fears that women of childbearing age are unreliable are reinforced and this in turn contributes to the persistence of the glass ceiling for women.

If new fathers were offered the same amount of leave as new mothers, fathers would have the opportunity to make the best use of their caring attributes. At the same time, employers would have no reason to discriminate against women on grounds of their potential for their taking maternity leave because their male employees would be just as likely to take leave. This is just one small example but it gives an insight into how reconfiguring masculinity can lead to benefits for mothers and fathers.

At a recent roundtable discussion on portrayals of beauty in the media, I found the debate concentrating on how awful lads’ mags are for taking advantage of women and using the female body for financial profit. Of course, it’s perfectly correct to criticise these magazines for objectifying women. It is at least as important though to make the argument that the attitudes of lads’ mags make it normal for men to objectify women. In the words of Catherine Redfern, in her review of John Stoltenberg’s book Refusing to be a Man, ‘how can the oppressed be free unless the oppressors change?’ There are certainly good reasons then for feminism to engage not only with the lives of women but also with the lives of men.

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Uncritical History and National Identity: The Beginnings of a British Historikerstreit?

9 Jun

I attended the Republic Annual Conference last Saturday and particularly enjoyed a panel on ‘Our Republican Heritage.’ Geoffrey Robertson QC and Edward Vallance first talked about Britain’s republican and radical history. But then the Q&A session turned to a more contemporary and immediate issue, namely the teaching of history.

Vallance brought up the Education Secretary Michael Gove’s plans to emphasise the British Empire in history teaching. Gove recently invited the right-wing historian Niall Ferguson to oversee the introduction of a history syllabus which ensures pupils are aware that modern history is the history of “the rise of western domination of the world.”

Ferguson and Gove’s ideas were opposed by Vallance on the grounds that emphasising Britain’s imperialist past would relegate the history of its radicals who fought for the liberties which we so value today. In the Historikerstreit of the 1980s Jürgen Habermas criticised right-wing German historians and politicians who wanted to revise Germany’s Nazi history to create a ‘useable’ German identity. Vallance followed Habermas’s line of attack in his condemnation of Gove’s attempts to rewrite the history school curriculum for the benefit of conservative political goals.

Update — 10.6.2010

The similarities with the original German Historikerstreit are growing already. Seumas Milne has written an article for the Guardian criticising the planned reforms: ‘Part of the motivation appears to be a doomed and perverted attempt to create a sense of national identity out of a historical inheritance that should be utterly rejected.’

The introduction of the history of British radicalism into the curriculum would certainly be worthwhile. Of course, it is healthy for pupils to be exposed to radical ideas but not necessarily as a part of an attempt to increase the number of radicals in British society. The best reasons for teaching not only about the history of British radicalism but also about the less than glorious parts of Britain’s  past are that it would engender pupils with critical mindsets.

History education should not concentrate on trying to achieve a common understanding of history which can be used to achieved a narrowly patriotic national identity. Indeed, the growing embarrassment at Britain’s imperialist past originally led to the marginalisation of the Empire within history teaching and subsequently within British national consciousness and identity. Similarly, teaching of World War Two history tended in my experience to focus on the successes of the Allies and never on more questionable aspects such as the bombing of Dresden or Soviet war crimes.

History should never be an exercise in merely remembering (or should that be memorising?) Britain’s proudest moments. Nor should it be about creating a supremacist national identity built around British victories and European domination of the world. German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Kniefall at the Memorial for the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto showed remorse for Germany’s Nazi past but it also offered a more self-critical way of understanding and problematising German national identity. It is deplorable that for the most part Britain does not critically engage with its past and its national identity.

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The Tale of Two Scandals (or the Telegraph’s Missed Opportunity)

7 Jun

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for the University of Birmingham student paper ‘Redbrick.’ The original is available here. To be clear, I disagree with the headline’s assertion that Laws’s practice was unethical. This article continues with some of my ideas from a previous blog post on David Laws.

The recent case of David Laws has illustrated the hypocrisy about how sexuality is often represented in Britain today. The Daily Telegraph accused Laws of illegally claiming expenses on the rent he was paying to his landlord who was also his long-term, though secret, boyfriend. Laws soon resigned from his ministerial post where he was responsible for reducing government spending. The ethics of Laws’s expenses claims are much disputed but that is to miss the most crucial aspect of the episode. If he had been open about his sexuality, he could have also claimed for his partner’s living costs and hugely increased his claims. His motives were clearly to keep his homosexuality private and the effect was to save the taxpayer money!

The Telegraph maintains it did not intend to divulge Laws’s sexuality. This is little more than a cynical attempt to deflect criticism that they were unfairly violating Laws’s privacy. As soon as Laws heard the story was soon to be published, he had little choice but to declare his sexuality. Neither his friends, nor his very traditionally Catholic family were aware that he is gay. Laws grew up in an inhibited family environment during a time typified by the Conservative government’s legislation banning the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality by teachers. It is hardly surprising that Laws valued his privacy so highly.

Many in the media and various (mainly Labour) MPs have argued however that it is equally as unethical for a privately gay MP to bend the expenses rules to avoid his sexuality being revealed as it is for an aristocratic MP to claim for his moat cleaning bills. In many cases, the viewpoint underpinning this assertion is that there is no reason for gay people to keep their sexuality secret in modern Britain. Two tweets from Ben Bradshaw, a gay Labour MP, epitomised this stance and asked ‘why should anyone in Britain today feel ashamed to acknowledge they’re gay’ and later ‘when is “protecting your privacy” a euphamism [sic] for feeling shameful about who you are?’

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On the Expenses and Privacy of David Laws

30 May

The case of David Laws is more complicated than many would wish to portray it, both on the issue of the legitimacy of his expenses claims and on his sexuality. Yes, he is a millionaire and could have easily afforded the rent for which he was claiming but all MPs are allowed to claim on rent for a second home under the current rules. Implementing a means-tested expenses system would perhaps go someway towards solving this problem.

It is wrong though to conclude that Laws was somehow cynically ripping off the tax-payer. As the Independent on Sunday’s leader points out,

had he been honest about his personal life, he could have legitimately claimed more from the public purse, as Mr Lundie’s housing costs would have been claimable as his property would have been the couple’s second home.

I am prepared then to accept that Laws is being truthful when he says the reason he covered up the use of his expenses was to protect his privacy and more specifically his sexuality. After all, if Laws was somehow claiming on public funds to maximise his personal monetary gain, it made no financial sense to keep his relationship with his partner secret. Continue reading

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