Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Thorny Subject of Grammar Schools

I've been rather erratic at posting on the old blog recently, and in today's post I was going to explain why. But, instead, my thoughts have been hijacked by another matter - the title might be a clue. Anyway, before I get into that I'll give a brief summary of what the post was going to be about.

Tomorrow is my last day at The Place Of Gainful Employment. A few months ago I was redundified and now the day of reckoning is nigh. When I switch off my computers tomorrow it will be for the very last time. I had intended on treating you to a rant about the Dot Com bubble, the consequences for ordinary working people (the site I work at has gone from 5000 punters in the year 2000 to about 900, and after tomorrow will be down to about 400 - and in a few months time the whole shebang will be transferred to Shenzhen, China). I've spent quite a bit of my last few months training Chinese engineers and providing them with data analysis solutions to enable the factory there to get up and running. C'est la vie, shit happens, shit moves on. I was also going to mention in passing just how much I would like to see Bernie Ebbers, Kenny Lay and their ilk rot in prison for the rest of their naturals. Perhaps another time, though, eh?

Now, I'm not trawling for sympathy here. I have another career up my sleeve, and I had another job lined up within a few days of being redundified. With the added bonus of 5 weeks off, 2 weeks of which will be on a beach in Spain, and a nice redundancy cheque, thankyou very much. So no need to feel sorry for me; reserve your feelings for the thousands of workers with no transferable skills who are being laid off, and face a deeply uncertain future.

Anyway, I'm not all that keen on blogging about what I do for a living, and I hadn't intended to say anything about my new job. However, and I think the reasons  will become clear, I'm going to. Although I might take the post down later.

As you may know, there's quite a debate going in the UK at the moment about grammar schools. I was going to simply post a comment about this post at the excellent Everything Ulster, but as I'm at work I can't post comments. I can, however, email posts to my own blog, so here we are.

The first thing I want to say is that I'm not a great fan of the Grammar School system. Now, before you all go apoplectic, I'll explain why.

The part of England I live in still has grammar schools in it's cities. It's undoubtedly true that these schools do a great job of giving the most able kids a fantastic, free, education. As you'd expect, the grammar schools are the best performers league-table wise in the county, and among the best in the country as a whole. However, and this is where I disagree with beano, it is not the case that comprehensives have failed everybody. In the rural areas of the county, there are no grammar schools. This is not for ideological reasons - we're talking about the same county that has grammar schools in the cities - but purely down to logisitics. The rural schools are all comprehensive, and, believe it or not, they also are among the best performing schools in the country. Country, that is, not county. Why? Because they're well-managed, well-staffed and well-run. Contrary to popular belief, they take competitive sport seriously. They encourage academic excellence for those capable of it, and maximise the potential of the less able - and, because these are true comprehensive schools, there are a lot of less able kids. They use setting and streaming in key subjects (yes, indeed, comps do recognise academic ability) to make sure students receive an education appropriate to their needs. They celebrate achievement and they are in fact quite able to call a Fail a Fail.

Where comprehensive schools can be a problem, though, is in the areas where grammar schools take all the most able kids. It's hardly surprising that a comp in a city with three grammar schools gets low exam results, is it? Or has more behaviour problems. The staff that work in those schools also do a fantastic job - how would you fare in a room full of sixteen year-olds, who by definition are not the brightest or best behaved, for an entire day? Every day? Believe me, it's a unique skill and one not to be dismissed lightly.

My point is, if the Daily Mail is to be believed, there is no such thing as a good comprehensive school. This is simply not true. Let's get past this bollocks about 'trendy teachers' giving everyone prizes. Beacuse it is bollocks. There's a whole lot of healthy competition going on in schools, in the classroom and on the sports field. Let's face it, all the hippy teachers with sixties ideals have long since retired. Teaching is a proper profession these days. Are there crap teachers? Of course there bloody are, same as there are crap engineers, policemen - even politicians, oddly enough.

Also, let's also get past the bollocks about 'those who can, do; those who can't, teach.', because it really winds me up.

I detect that you may have recognised that I have more than a passing interest in the subject. As I've explained above, I work in the telecoms industry, and have done for a total of 14 years. I am therefore more than capable of 'doing a proper job'. I have also, in between stints in industry, taught in Inner London for 6 years. And, as you may have guessed, I'm going back into teaching in September. In, as it happens, a grammar school. (Maths and engineering, since you ask.) I myself am most certainly not namby-pamby, and I don't know many teachers who are! We're pretty normal alcoholics, by and large. (That was a joke.)

I have no intention of turning this into a teaching blog. In fact, I'll never mention it again, apart from maybe some broad education-policy type stuff. But I needed to get that off my chest. As you can probably tell.

Incidentally, when we get back from the sunny Spanish beach we're going to London for a week. We will be very sure not to get tanned while on the beach, nor wear unseasonably warm jackets - and very, very definitely no rucksacks. Or IPods.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Ashes To Ashes

As I write, the England cricket team are in the process of giving the Aussies a rare old trouncing. As I write, that is. No doubt by this time tomorrow it'll be back to Situation Normal. At least, I fervently hope so.

I can't help it, I really can't. Even though I've lived in England for 16 years now, and thoroughly love the place and the people (not to mention the fact that my half-Scottish, half-Welsh son will undoubtedly want to be English when he grows up), I just can't bring myself to support an England team. At anything. And for these purposes, Tim Henman counts as a team.

My English friends - ie, nearly all of my friends - seem to think this verges on ingratitude. I've even been called a racist. And then this, always this: "We'd support Scotland if they were playing."

Which is missing the point by about a hundred thousand miles. Not to mention being infuriatingly patronising. You see, when it comes down to it, it's about football. In our minds, Scotland are Man Utd and the English are Arsenal. Ihave never once heard a Gooner say "I do hope the plucky little ManYoos win the European Championship when we go out in the second round as usual." Or the other way round. It simply doesn't happen. And we would much rather that the English did what we do - support whoever's playing us. Even if it is the Faroe Islands. In fact, especially if it's the Faroe Islands. We can take it. We want you to take us seriously. Even though it is difficult even for us to take Scotland's current prospects seriously.

It's not that I have a problem with English sportsmen. Except Tim Henman. There are many I have a great deal of time for. It's the media, really. An Aussie fan posted this on the BBC cricket site, and I think he sums it up neatly:

"I would have thought you'd actually wait until you'd won a match before questioning Australia's skill or proclaiming England's greatness.It seems the inherent smugness of some of you just can't help bubbling to the surface."

That's it. The same smugness that seems, if one reads the popular press, to give the England football team the divine right to win the World Cup next year. That and the fact that England teams get masses of coverage in the national TV news, while Scotland, Wales and especially Northern Ireland barely rate a mention. And will you ever feckin' stop banging on about 1966? I dread the fortieth anniversary of that next year (yes, that's right - FORTY YEARS since you won anything. Now shut up.)

Sorry. Got carried away there. Would someone please get that chip off my shoulder?

Evidence that cricket is indeed a great game:

1317: Warne, the next man in, sits in the dressing room with cigarette in hand as Flintoff bowls two no-balls and sends another two balls wide down leg-side.

This has been a rant. A thoroughly enjoyable rant. Now, please disperse. There is nothing to see here.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Weapons of Mass Destruction

The 60th anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki comes up in August. The Guardian have re-published an edited version of an account of the aftermath by American journalist John Hersey, published in the New Yorker, describing the experiences of six survivors. Actually, the word 'survivor' doesn't seem wholly appropriate in the context. Apparently 95% of those within a half-mile of the blast died instantly - they may have been the lucky ones. It's a harrowing read.

The arguments for and against dropping the bombs have also been going on for sixty years; some of these are detailed in the wikipedia entry. It seems unarguable that the bombs assisted in bringing about the end of the war. It also seems unarguable, given the pig-headedness of the Imperial armed forces, that the eventual death toll would have been many times higher than the approximately two hundred thousand who died as a result of 'Little Boy' and 'Fat Man' (such delightful nicknames, don't you think?). When the Japanese military say 'fight to the last man' they mean it.

However, as this document demonstrates, the deliberate targetting of civilians - including analysis of the likely psychological effects - is very difficult to reconcile with the concept of civilised democracy. I know civilians were targetted throughout World War II, on all sides, and that 'total war' demanded difficult decisions. It's also true that it's perfectly possible to annihilate 200,000 city-dwelling civilians with conventional weapons. But this, the unique cruelty of the atomic bomb, goes way beyond the limits of acceptability - or at least my limits of acceptability. As Leo Szilard - a scientist who worked on the bomb - said

"If the Germans had dropped atomic bombs on cities instead of us, we would have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them."

An extract from a report to the Vatican by a German priest, Father Siemes, who lived in Hiroshima but was out of the city on the day of the bomb is quoted in Hersey's article (italics are mine):

"Some of us consider the bomb in the same category as poison gas and were against its use on a civilian population. Others were of the opinion that in total war, as carried on in Japan, there was no difference between civilians and soldiers, and that the bomb itself was an effective force tending to end the bloodshed, warning Japan to surrender and thus to avoid total destruction. It seems logical that he who supports total war in principle cannot complain of war against civilians. The crux of the matter is whether total war in its present form is justifiable, even when it serves a just purpose. Does it not have material and spiritual evil as its consequences which far exceeds whatever good might result? When will our moralists give us a clear answer to this question?"

As we know, the targetting of innocent civilians as a tactic of 'war' is a phenomenon that lives with us still. Perhaps it's time to bang those moralists' heads together and get them to answer the bloody question.

It's also worth remembering who has the real weapons of mass destruction on this planet.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Happy Twelfth

How I could I not write on the 12th of July, the start of the catholic-hunting season? (Lighten up! It's a joke! Everyone knows the catholic-hunting season starts on the 12th of August.)

The 12th of July is in fact the anniversary (sort of, after a bit of calendar-type jiggery-pokery) of the battle of the Boyne in 1690, when William of Orange's army defeated that of ex-king James. The wikipedia covers it very well, so no need for me to repeat the detail here.

Now the battle of the Boyne is widely regarded as being the Great Victory of the Protestants over the Catholics in Ireland, although in the wider European context things were a little more complicated. (I personally find it rather sad, but it really does seem that everyone hates the French. And always has. Read the wiki.) To celebrate this momentous event, the Orange Order (damn! linked to them again!) hold parades, mainly in Northern Ireland but also in other places around the world. In Northern Ireland itself these parades are often contentious, generally when the Orangemen want to march through areas which are now predominantly catholic. Interestingly, there are also parades in the Republic of Ireland which never seem to cause any problem at all.

Now, I can see both sides of this one. I've already posted about my former support for Sinn Fein, so it's not at all difficult for me to see the catholic side. It looks very much as if the Prods are marching around shouting "Ha. We won. We're the boss. Peasants. And we'll take it up any bloody Queen's Highway we please." Plus, the music's crap. And bowler hats look very silly. And they get in the way.
On the other hand, it is their tradition. The walks weren't originally through catholic areas; as the polarisation of the population increased it was inevitable that some routes would come close to mainly catholic areas. I think even the Orange Order might agree that in the past there were times when they did little to alleviate potential conflicts, but these days they do try to reach agreement and do make at least a show of respect when walking close to catholic estates.

To be honest, I find the whole thing pretty distasteful. I wish they'd just stop. I wish they'd stop banging on about 1690 - not many veterans of that battle still alive. But they're not going to. And, frankly, nor should they. I don't hear many complaints from Protestants about St Patrick's Day  - I bet most of them are out getting pissed with green-painted faces, drinking green Guinness, and thinking "will you ever stop banging on about fecking Wolfe Tone?".
Okay, maybe not so much of the green.

Incidentally, there used to be an annual Orange walk in the town I grew up in in Ayrshire. It was always preceded by a policeman to generally sort traffic out and stuff. Many times, my dad was that policeman. He always found it highly amusing that the Orange walk was being led by a catholic and they didn't have a clue.

One of the things about Northern Ireland is it can be quite hard to predict who's going to be offended by what. If I haven't offended both sides equally let me know and I'll try to redress the balance. Actually, to be honest, I'm not sure I've been offensive enough....

Friday, July 08, 2005


There's an excellent post on Ed Bott's blog comparing the BBC's coverage of yesterday's events with the American news media. Interesting to read an American perspective confirming the superiority of the BBC approach to the more hysterical reaction of US news channels.

Those people who believe the BBC is politically biased, riddled with lefties, really need to give themselves a good slap and begin to appreciate what news would be like in this country if market forces were allowed to rule.

Forty Year Old Woman Frames Six Year Old Girl

Some things just beggar belief.....
I'll let you read it for yourself, because, for the second time today, words fail me.
BBC Devon: Woman who framed child is jailed


I'm really not sure what to say, so I think I'll take The Sharpener's advice and not say very much at all. Other than to express my condolences to the families of those who died, and wish a speedy recovery to those injured. My wife and I met when we both worked very close to Moorgate, and we have many friends there still, all of whom are thankfully fine.
I think Ken Livingstone said all that needed to be said; eloquent, measured and moving. The London News Review's take was somewhat less measured, but also bang on the mark.
I also thought the blog world did a fantastic job. As it was virtually impossible to access any of the professional news websites, I got most of my information from bloggers in London. I'd particularly single out Going Underground  for some excellent coverage.
I will now take the London News Review's advice and go down the pub.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Chirac's Cooked His Moose

Well, Jacques' cunning plan worked, then. London get the 2012 Olympics. I don't know what Finland's done to deserve the slating it's been getting lately. First of all Silvio Berlusconi has a go at the food, then Jacques Chirac weighs in. I mean, what could be wrong with a little Pan Fried Medallion of Moose, with a Potato and Celeriac, er, Mousse? Or a tasty rack of smoked reindeer ribs? The question is why did Monsieur Chirac not notice the little gaggle of journalists nearby when he made his allegedly private comments? Perhaps he's a little hard of herring? Sorry.

Plus, if there was ever a bad time to choose to slag off British food, surely it's a couple of days before arriving in Britain and presumably eating at the Gleneagles hotel. I'm sure it's not the kind of place where waiters would actually spit in your food, but why take the chance?

I've never been to Finland, so I can't comment on the food, but a couple of years ago my wife and I visited Tallinn, which is fairly adjacent. We went to an excellent Indian restaurant called the Elevant one evening and there on the menu was 'Moose Tikka Massala'. I kid you not. (It doesn't seem to be on the menu anymore, but there is the delightfully imaginative 'Moose on a Hot Plate'. Wasn't that a musical?)

Thought for the day, for no other reason than it popped into my mind while driving to work this morning. Dorothy Parker, asked to compose a sentence with the word 'horticulture' in it: "You can lead a horticulture but you can't make her think." Indeed.