Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Tony Blair has abandoned education as a means of social promotion

A few years ago, a primary school headmistress that I know summoned the mother of a boy who was falling behind seriously on literacy, to a great extent because his parents never checked whether or not he did his homework. She decided to drive home the nature of the problem quite starkly, and asked the lady bluntly whether she wanted her son to be able to read or not. “Of course I do! Of course I want him to be able to read! I don’t want him to read books like a poof though.” The poor child is not unique in being cursed with stupid, irresponsible parents, and that’s not something that the school or the State can do anything about (not unless someone is prepared to introduce some kind of procreation licence, and I’m sure that there are those who think that would be a jolly good idea). I don’t know what happened to that boy, but I do know the teacher, and I’m pretty sure that she did her damnedest to make sure that he did learn to read, and that consequently he stood a better chance of breaking out of the vicious spiral of ignorance with all its attached evils that he was destined for by his parents and background. But then he was lucky enough through a shake of life’s dice to have fallen in the catchment area of that particular school and to have landed on that particular teacher. And of course that’s one of the things that free, universal schooling is supposed to provide: the opportunity for social promotion.

Tony Blair’s great radical reform of schools may not explicitly set out to do so, but one of its main effects is going to be to make sure that the chances of children like the one mentioned above to rise above the status into which they were born thanks to education will be reduced to a minimum. They’re already not great as things stand. I have yet to read the White Paper, but Tony Blair’s speech given on Monday at Downing Street to a group of parents (which parents? Randomly selected ones pulled off the street? Probably not) is sufficiently detailed and long-winded to provide a pretty good idea of what is involved.

The overall goal is “a system of independent, self-governing state schools with fair funding and fair admissions”. This sounds good, you have to admit, until you try and fathom what exactly Tony means by this. It’s a classic piece of Blair rhetoric in that way. I’m particularly curious to find out what he means by “fair”. This pine marten sets a great deal of store by “fair”, and over the years I’ve come to believe that he doesn’t. In Tony’s own words, ”within two years, virtually every school will be a specialist school”. In practice, this means that there will no longer be a real National Curriculum. Schools will be able to decide what they do and don’t teach, and will be actively encouraged to develop specialisations in certain subject, and then to ”market them to parents”, who “should be able to exercise choice” under the new system, but more on that later. The curriculum will be determined by parents’ groups, charities, businesses, faith organisations, anyone who cares to have a say in it really, and importantly anyone who cares to offer some funding. Indeed, they will be actively encouraged to set up their own schools under the new proposals if they don’t like what’s on the market. I can hear Sir Digby Jones of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI, sometimes referred to as the Bosses’ Union) now: "Students learning Ancient Greek instead of Accounting costs British Business eight-hundred billion quid a decade!" The only people who will not have a say in this are local education authorities (LEAs). LEAs will monitor standards and commission services, but not run schools. Councils will liaise and mediate, but won’t be education providers.

Really it boils down to this: the State is giving up on providing universal, good quality education. Instead, as for everything else that the British state has washed its hands of in recent years, education will be opened to the universal panacea that is The Market. That’s not leftwing paranoia, Tony said so, not me: “There will in one sense be a market. The patient and the parent will have much greater choice. But it will only be a market in the sense of consumer choice, not a market based on private purchasing power”. The last part of that sentence is disingenuous nonsense, as the Blairs must surely know following their efforts to make sure that their children went to the best schools. If it is true that education will remain free, the much-vaunted parental choice will only apply to those who are best placed to take advantage of the new system through their background, educational level, postcode, inclination and ability to do so. The boy with the useless parents at the beginning of this story would not benefit from this alleged choice that his parents have. So those that will benefit will be those that already have the greatest ability to make the system work for them, and therefore the children who have the least need of the State’s help. Children born into poorly educated or simply poor backgrounds or areas are being abandoned. The State is giving up trying to offer social promotion through education, it’s taking away the opportunity to rise purely on one’s own merits, through one’s own work, assisted by the State. In fact, it’s giving up on trying to help those who can’t help themselves.

And if the State stops doing for its citizens the things that they cannot do on their own, then what exactly is the State for apart from its own perpetuation?

“Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”

Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26. (1)

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Civil liberties defenders should hang out with the foxhunters more

Inspiration can come from the most unlikely places. Those amongst you who have misgivings about the Blair government’s cavalier attitude to civil liberties as they seek to combat Evil in all its devious forms by playing "Variations sur le Thème de l’Acte du Terrorisme, en cas de Force Majeure" repeatedly, until we stop being able to distinguish the notes and doze off, should probably take a good look at what the persecuted minority that are foxhunting supporters are up to. If you haven’t been paying much attention to this ongoing conflict over the years, it may come as a surprise to you that, following what appeared to be a final triumph for opponents of foxhunting earlier this year, when the 1949 Parliament Act was used to finally force the ban into law, the foxhunters haven’t actually stopped hunting at all. If their PR war left something to be desired, especially compared to that of their opponents, they have no lessons to take when it comes to their current civil disobedience campaign. You may think that foxhunters have no right to use civil disobedience tactics, they’re for people like you who oppose the introduction of ID cards or nuclear waste reprocessing. However they’re just as viable for the defence of foxhunting, and the Militant Pine Marten is impressed.

Before I explain why this is case, I should define what I mean by civil disobedience*. At its simplest, civil disobedience is simply the refusal by people who consider a law to be iniquitous to submit themselves to it. However as this leaves the door open to arguments such as "Well suppose I disagree with the law that forbids murder then?", I shall add a few details. First of all, an act of civil disobedience must be conscious and intentional. Breaking a law by mistake doesn’t count. Making a conscious decision to sit in the "whites only" seat on the bus when you’re black does. Such an act is also public, which is a major difference with a criminal act, which must be clandestine to reap benefits. It is an individual action that purports to have a collective goal: the participant breaks the law to benefit others. Civil disobedience is non-violent. Its effect should come from its resonance with a with a larger body of people. Finally, and this is of course where the whole concept turns into a legal and philosophical powder keg, civil disobedience calls upon "higher principles" than those invoked by the lawmakers. Whereas these could be religious or ideological, they can also be constitutional. In this way, paradoxically, it is possible for civil disobedience to strengthen established institutions. Now that we know what we’re talking about, let’s move on to the case in point.

On the 20th November 2004, the rightwing philosopher (and foxhunter) Roger Scruton published the Hunting Declaration, inviting foxhunters and supporters to openly pledge to disobey any eventual ban on foxhunting. The text fulfils all of the above criteria. None of the signatories hid their identities, denied that they would be breaking the law, and importantly the website states "The success of the Declaration will be judged by the press, public and Government, by the number of people who sign it, and especially those that do not hunt.". So far, outright defiance has not been necessary. Interestingly, what the foxhunting supporters are doing now is to push the law as far as it will go, testing both the word of the law, and the authorities’ will to enforce it. This may be enough if not to have the ban law repealed, to maintain a situation in which it is not effectively enforced, until such time that another government will repeal it. Although I’m quoting Che Guevara out of context here, I don’t think I’m taking too many liberties with the logic if I say that this stage is analogous to the pre-revolutionary stage described here:

"Where a government has come into power through some form of popular vote, fraudulent or not, and maintains at least an appearance of constitutional legality, the guerrilla outbreak cannot be promoted, since the possibilities of peaceful struggle have not yet been exhausted."

So far, the ban’s opponents haven’t quite finished exploring legal routes, and of course they can’t become violent because there is at least a semblance of constitutional legality. And anyway what Che liked wasn’t civil disobedience, it was revolution, which is a different matter. However there is scope for making the authorities’ lives really difficult through civil disobedience should they decide to start trying to prosecute hunts, which would be a pretty expensive and time-consuming process.

Now the fact is that this is very, very interesting stuff for anyone who has toyed with the idea of refusing to carry an ID card if they are introduced and made mandatory. It is very similar to what the NO2ID (banner on the left) campaign is trying to achieve: first you sign a pledge that you won’t register for an ID card, then you give money to support legal resistance should it come to that. The key things are being non-violent, being public, and not giving up. And of course accepting that the PTBs are likely to make your life harder. But that’s not going to be so easy for them if a million people do the same.

And when you’re out there demonstrating against ID Cards and sitting in the way of the riot police van, don’t be surprised if the guy next to you is in tweeds. He’s already a civil disobedience veteran after all.

* Acknowledgements to Mahatma Gandhi, Henry David Thoreau and the Wikipedia.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Let us build a Europe of the Mushroom Hunting Peoples

This week’s European Union summit on beginning formal accession talks with Turkey ended in success despite the single-minded opposition of Turkey’s old sparring partner Austria. It was Austria, not Greece as you could have expected, that single-mindedly opposed Turkey’s entry into the EU. Given that relations between Greece and Turkey have been somewhat strained for the past few decades, in particular because of the ongoing disgraceful situation concerning Cyprus, this may have come as a bit of a surprise to some. After all, Greece and Turkey have been rivals for at least 3,300 years, ever since a young man from around the North-West Anatolian town of Hisarlik eloped with his Greek chum form Sparta’s wife. So one could expect that given the lack of any such recent outrages, the Austrians would have come to terms with their traditional rivalry with the former Ottomans and buried that particular hatchet. However the price for Austria’s change of mind if not of heart – the opening of accession talks with neighbouring Croatia – suggests that the Austro-Turkish struggle for influence over the Balkans isn’t quite over. Although there’s precious little evidence that Ankara has any interest in becoming once again closely involved in that particular nest of vipers. There’ll be trouble in the Balkans, yet.

While as always, the EU ship sailed closer and closer to the diplomatic wind, Chancellor Schuessel of Austria explained on television that "it was necessary to understand people's concerns about the EU's ability to truly welcome", which at face value is a reasonable statement. The Austrians may be rather less keen than anyone else in the EU on Turkish membership, but there’s hardly overwhelming popular support for the idea. According to Eurobaremeter, only 10% of Austrians favour Turkish accession, but across the EU, the figure is only around 37%, which is hardly a ringing endorsement. So if the EU’s political elite don’t want a repeat of the last summer’s disastrous referenda on the proposed EU Constitution in France and the Netherlands over Turkey (and bear in mind that at the moment, France at least is planning on holding a referendum on Turkish accession when the time comes), it’s going to have to address some popular concerns.

The big question that we all have to answer is this: what is the EU going to be? This raises others. What is it for? Where does it stop? In fact, what is Europe? Is it a cultural sphere? Is it simply a geographical area limited by seas and the Urals? If so, where exactly in the Urals? If it’s defined by culture, which particular aspects of culture? There are those who maintain that it’s religion. Jacques Delors once said that the EU was a “Christian club”, and I’m sure that this is a statement that resonates with many Austrians, and other Europeans. But this argument doesn’t really hold water. Certainly most Europeans are nominally Christians, whether Catholic, Orthodox or any of the branches of Protestantism that you care to choose. But how many Europeans really define themselves in this way? What proportion of those who oppose the entry of a predominantly Muslim population into the EU make any decision based on their religion more than let’s say once a month? How often do they attend a service? For most them, not very often I’d wager. This is a difficult argument because it runs into the wall of religious and arguably racial prejudice. This is a low-level, insidious emotion that lurks in the background, but it’s real nonetheless.

In an uncharacteristically optimistic article this week, Timothy Garton Ash, who has been pretty miserable and downcast of late, attempts to answer some of these questions, and does so well. He claims that the EU is not becoming some sort of super-state as many rabid anti-Europeans (Eurosceptic is such an anaemic term) claim. Neither is it simply a giant free trade zone as many continental Euro-enthusiasts fear that the British want to make in into. It’s a new form of Commonwealth of Nations for want of a better term, united by a common political vision, a commitment to democracy, human rights, and improving the lot of its peoples through economic strength. These may sound like vague concepts, and in a way they are, but they have a life of their own, and it will take more than populist political pandering to the electorate’s fears to stop them.

In the meantime, if Europeans need a simpler idea of what unites Europe to cling onto until such time as the aforementioned ones gain some credence amongst them, I suggest that rather than any political goal, geographic notion or religious criterion, they should use the pan-European love of mushroom hunting. In every member state of the EU (except for the UK, which explains why by and large, the UK has never really embraced the European ideal as much as its partners) and in its expansion frontier to the East, people love picking mushrooms. It is an activity that unites generations, provides a sense of continuity, stimulates contemplation, and leads to a social gathering around a very special meal, while fostering a friendly sense of competition. I am reliably informed that our Turkish friends are very keen mushroom hunters too.

So go out to the woods, pick some mushrooms, reflect on the fact that fellow Europeans and aspiring Europeans throughout the continent are doing the same. After the weekend, email or telephone your friends across Europe and tell them about it, thereby creating a pan-European sense of purpose. Calm down, enjoy it, relax, let the anxiety slip away, and together we shall build a Europe of the Mushroom Hunting Peoples!