Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

China comes to my home

July 9, 2013

We are having a Chinese primary school teacher to stay. She and a bunch of other Chinese teachers are supervising 40 Shanghainese kids on an English language immersion trip to Cambridge. Since our teacher (the senior one) doesn’t speak much English, I figured it would be good for our kids to have a week practising their Chinese.

It turns out that our kids also get a cultural lesson thrown in for free.

The Chinese teachers and schoolchildren have been billeted with Cambridge families around town. So far so good. But in order to consolidate them in the morning  so as to get everyone to school, they are not using one of the regular Cambridge taxi firms. Instead they are using a Chinese taxi firm I have never seen before. It’s a guanxi thing, you see.

Sure enough the driver gets to our house already half an hour late having gotten lost. Being Chinese, he doubtless also left half an hour spare in case of mistakes, so the group has likely already wasted an hour this morning going to wrong places. Plus, of course, the actual origin to destination driving time.

Finally the car pulls up outside our house and disgorges two panic-stricken occupants, both teachers. Spotting Senior Teacher Zhang, who is staying with us, they head for our front door. ‘We need the toilet!’ they exclaim, pushing into the house and straight past me in the corridor. ‘Hello!’ says one, as he locates the downstairs toilet under the stairs and heads in. A female teacher, beaten to the downstairs toilet, scoots straight off upstairs in search of another one, quickly locating it.

I wander into the street with my espresso to take in the scene.

After a couple of minutes the toilet-seeking teachers reappear becalmed and join Senior Teacher Zhang and the others in the taxi.

‘Sank you!’ says one.

And with that the people who are taking over the world are off.

UKIP if you want to / Weekend reading & viewing

May 5, 2013

So UKIP (full name ‘UKIP if you want to, we are going to set this cross on fire’)  has won 100+ council seats.

To me it is a symptom of a less inclusive, more unequal society fomenting a brew of angry old and ignorant people (and old and ignorant people) that the Conservative Party can no longer accommodate because they have become too angry and prejudiced even for the Tories.

In America they call this sociological phenomenon the Tea Party and I am surprised the press is not going for more of an ‘ooh, we’ve now got one too’ angle. Indeed UK leader Nigel Farage (unfortunate foreign-sounding name, no?) says UKIP is indeed the Tea Party wrapped in a different flag.

The bigger issue at stake here is whether UKIP is more of a problem for the Tories or for Labour. Hopeful Tories say that since they got a quarter of this week’s local election vote, and so did UKIP, together the right has half the vote if it can just, like Humpty, be put back together again. This sounds superficially tremendous, but the US experience suggests it is not, because when the far right of the right-wing becomes so nutty that your mother-in-law starts to seem reasonable, it really benefits the left. If the Labour Party can generate a few sensible policies (a la Obama), and get rid of Ed Balls and other remaining Blair-Brown detritus, it may be set fair for the 2015 general election. A single term of opposition for what Blair and Brown did to their country would be an extraordinarily low price to have to pay…


Weekend reading & viewing:

Why it is very dangerous to give police any new powers (in cartoon format).

This repeated, just in case anybody has not seen it. Give Obama a tv show, now.

Amanda Knox’s interview with ABC‘s Diane Sawyer to coincide with the release of her book. Part 1 (only about 8 mins)

This is very funny and goes out to all my friends planning to ghettoise their children in expensive British boarding schools.

Here’s more in the same vein.

Boycotting Google. I own shares in Google, but they are tax evading bastards and they promised not to be evil, so they are also hypocrites. Here is how you can substitute their services. I am trying out the duckduckgo search engine, so far without problems.

Thought food

January 31, 2013

Here is a rather powerful piece of writing – particularly the historical analysis in the first half — encouraged by The Guardian’s George Monbiot having turned 50.

It connects up to this article about Nick Clegg who, I think, fails to recognise that if the Liberal Democrat party cannot be more principled than the Labour party, then there really is no reason whatsoever for its existence.


Completely separately

Have I entered a parallel universe, or did I just give a speech to a large conference in the US at which these were the newspapers people were reading?


Book review: School Wars

December 30, 2011

If you have children, and you have not read a history of the British education system, then this book is already worth reading. It is far from perfectly organised, and it fails to make some — to me — obvious and powerful points about education policy. Indeed the book might have been better as a more closely focused pamphlet of 120 pages rather than the 200 pages that it is. But overall, School Wars contains enough good information to leave you grinding your teeth at the weakness and hypocrisy of British politicians in all three major parties. It has proven, in Britain, easier to have a rational debate about homosexuality than about education.

Why? The proximate reason is that the British establishment is still overwhelmingly educated in elitist schools which refuse to accept poor or more difficult to teach children. The apex of this system is the roughly 7 percent of children who go to private schools and the 5 percent who go to grammars. But if you count in other church and non-church state schools which cherry-pick their intake, there is probably one-fifth or more of families and kids which undertake their education on the unspoken basis that it is reasonable to leave everyone else to fend for themselves.

In a country like Italy, the elite plunders the state directly. In Britain, the approach to making sure the establishment gets more than its share is far more subtle. Indeed one can only admire the refinement of the hypocrisy. Instead of grabbing what you want directly, you give yourselves an unassailable advantage by creating selective schools for those with more money, more accumulated learning and better social networks and then ‘compete’ with people who have had to undertake their education in the real, everyday world of mixed incomes and abilities.

School Wars fails to make the most important point about this system — that those who support it are anti-competitive. The British education system exists to prevent children having equal educational opportunity and therefore from competing on an equal basis. It is a myth that the rich and powerful like competition — it is a threat to their status. What they like is competition according to rules they set, just what the British education system offers.

Another thing School Wars fails to address is the false fear that most people have about a nationalised education system, where each school would educate a fair cross-section of the population. Such an arrangement would create a more genuine free market, but it would never mean that the monied classes could not bring their money to bear on their children’s advancement. Such support would simply have to occur outside school, as is the case in Scandinavian countries, continental European ones, north-east Asian ones, or Canada, which have non-selective school systems and post higher average educational scores than Britain.  Money still counts in those countries. However you cannot move your child to some ‘gated’ educational community free of the poor.

It may seem there is a lot missing from Melissa Benn’s book. In fact, there is a lot in it. She is good at showing how real improvement in Britain’s education system cannot come from piecemeal change. Britain needs a simple, straightforward commitment to education as a public good. Everything else leads back, through any number of byways, to manipulation of the system by more powerful interests against less powerful interests. The loser is the  aggregate quality of education. As constructed today the British school system is really an experiment to prove the existence of middle class selfishness. We knew that existed already.

School’s in

October 3, 2011

It works quite well for us in Cambridge that I can go for a run while the kids ride their bikes. I get some exercise and they get to win. On Sunday I went with the eldest on a circuit through town, where we agreed to poke around a college. We picked Trinity Hall, which is small, rich and riparian.

Upon entering, it was clear that undergraduates were arriving. At the Porter’s lodge a group of keen helpers in pink T-shirts was ready to nab a newby.

Further on through a couple of courtyards, parents were being allowed to drive in to the college to deposit their children. The cars weren’t flash. There was one Mercedes, but otherwise these were the vehicles of people who had spent a jolly lot of money educating their kids.

Confident young people ignored signs instructing them not to walk on the grass. It was, I suddenly saw, a perfect replica of an English public school at the beginning of term.

We went and sat on the wall down by the river and watched the punts. Next to us, three girls with squeaky boarding school accents chatted. Someone had hung a pirate flag from the window of their room. One of the girls, noticing this, observed in deadpan tones: ‘They should take that down. I think it cheapens the place.’

For some reason, the scene made me think of the signs in Italian courtrooms that say ‘Everyone is equal before the law’.

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