Mr Bigg's Blog A blog about politics, theology, education and the rest…

24Jun/160

Morning has broken?

Posted by Mike

As I write, Britain has voted to leave the EU. The pound has been tumbling against the dollar all night, down to 1985 levels. No-one knows what will happen when the FTSE opens at 8am; anything from 5-10% wiped off the value. The Japanese are panicked because the Yen has suddenly surged.

I genuinely worry for our nation this morning. The simmering resentment that has been coming for a long time (if it's a wake-up call to anyone then you've been asleep for too long) has finally erupted. We'll need amazingly wise and compassionate leadership to hold us together. I fear for the poorest and most vulnerable in our society if we are beginning a bumpy 5-10 year journey to a new relationship with the EU (and the rest of the world).

And yet in Morning Prayer today we pray:

Blessed are you, Sovereign God of all,
to you be praise and glory for ever.
In your tender compassion
the dawn from on high is breaking upon us
to dispel the lingering shadows of night.
As we look for your coming among us this day,
open our eyes to behold your presence
and strengthen our hands to do your will,
that the world may rejoice and give you praise.
Blessed be God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Blessed be God for ever.

It doesn't feel like the "dawn from on high is breaking upon us". It feels more like a creeping gloom. And yet, God's name is to be praised.

Today we remember the birth of John the Baptist. A voice calling in the wilderness. I'm sure lots of people feel like they've been calling in a wilderness this morning. And yet, and yet...

Morning Prayer was hard today. I didn't feel the words I was saying for much of it. But that only makes it more important. I hope we can all pray the Collect for John the Baptist today though:

Almighty God,
by whose providence your servant John the Baptist
was wonderfully born,
and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Saviour
by the preaching of repentance:
lead us to repent according to his preaching
and, after his example,
constantly to speak the truth, boldly to rebuke vice,
and patiently to suffer for the truth's sake;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Amen

27Nov/140

“Good enough” never is

Posted by Mike

I had an hour or so to kill yesterday and so I took a wander around Hinchingbrooke Hospital. As I was leaving I noticed the Circle Partnership Credo emblazoned on the wall. I'll reproduce the Principles from it here:

Our Principles
We are above all the agents of our patients. We aim to exceed their expectations every time so that we earn their trust and loyalty. We strive to continuously improve the quality and the value of the care we give our patients.
We empower our people to do their best. Our people are our greatest asset. We should select them attentively and invest in them passionately. As everyone matters, everyone who contributes should be a Partner in all that we do. In return, we expect them to give their patients all that they can.
We are unrelenting in the pursuit of excellence. We embrace innovation and learn from our mistakes. We measure everything we do and we share the data with all to judge. Pursuing our ambition to be the best healthcare provider is a never-ending process. 'Good enough' never is.

As you can see, it is full of laudable ideas that are hard to disagree with. But look again at that last sentence:

"Good enough" never is.

I'll be 33 tomorrow and I'm tired. I'm not just tired because I have a slightly off colour child at home; I'm tired, in part, because of the well-intentioned but damaging "Good enough never is" (GENI) culture that has developed recently.

I'm tired for the staff in hospitals like Hinchingbrooke who are faced every days with words and phrases like "unrelenting", "continuously improve" and "never-ending process". There's an exhausting feeling that nothing is ever good enough, no amount of honest effort and good practice is acceptable, no quality of patient care is high enough. GENI.

I'm tired for teachers. Teachers face a constant sense that if you're not getting better you're getting worse. If your results aren't improving year on year there's a problem. If you're not constantly developing your practice then you are letting the students down. Hit that target? Here's another one to keep you busy. What are you doing to help FSM students? SEND students? G&T students? EAL students? Perfectly average middle-of-the-road students? GENI.

I'm tired for schools. When I was younger satisfactory meant neither laudable nor culpable, neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy. A satisfactory school was precisely that. Not great, not terrible. No-one thought that "satisfactory" was great and people worked to improve things. Now satisfactory means "requires improvement". What an exhausting phrase (with all of the inspection and oversight that goes with it). Even "good" schools must be constantly striving and relentlessly pursuing outstanding status (even though only a few schools can be "outstanding" by definition). GENI

I'm tired for pupils in schools. I suspect that there are plenty of students in our schools who have almost never had a piece of work that simply says: "Well done! This is a great piece of work!" If teachers don't set targets for improvement (however minuscule) then we are "enemies of progress". Poor kids! Nothing they do is ever quite enough! I'm sure many teachers will attest an increase in mental health concerns, often among bright and well-motivated girls, because of that feeling. GENI.

Good enough for what?

If we say that "good enough" never is, then the obvious question that arises is "good enough for what?" What's this "good enough" not good enough for? I'm not suggesting for a moment that we should all put our feet up, do the bare minimum and say "it'll do" every day. There are thousands of things that can (and should) get better. However, we need to be careful of the messages we give out. If someone has genuinely and honestly done their job as well as they can, is developing and getting better in some way, and is committed to what they are doing then we can and must say: "GOOD ENOUGH!" In the early days of my career (when I noticed less GENI language) I wanted to improve and grow as a teacher. I read things to improve my practice, I tried new ideas, I put effort into my own development. Not because I was told to, but because I wanted to. Most human beings want to be good at stuff. Most of us recognise areas for development and seek (within reason) to act on them. The moment GENI-type language comes in (even implicitly) the incentive for self-development goes out of the window. Why bother trying to get better if it'll never be good enough?

All of this is to say that I'm worried about GENI-language. It's laudable intentions can often be counter-productive. While I'm sure that there are some for whom "good enough" means a vague attempt in the right kind of direction, I'd hope that for the majority "good enough" means exactly that and we should acknowledge it as such.

And so, some practical suggestions (first 3 for teachers):

  1. The next time you mark some work make a point of identifying students who have really worked hard and made progress. Set them the following target: "Enjoy a night off school work and tell your mum that Mr X says you deserve something special for dinner".
  2. The next time you observe a colleague teaching a really great lesson make a point of identifying all of the good things you can. If students enjoy their learning and are making progress make it clear that you were pleased with the lesson, mention all of the good points and leave it at that. Only identify areas for improvement if specifically asked.
  3. Challenge nit-picking targets once in a while. Ask the person setting the target: "Was this work good enough?" If they say yes, then suggest that they leave it at that.
  4. The next time you are tempted to complain about something ask yourself, "Was what I'm complaining about good enough?" If it was just a mistake or someone having a bad day rather than representing a systemic failure then perhaps just leave your complaint unvoiced.
  5. Be kind to yourself! If something you've done is genuinely good enough and you can't reasonably do any more, then let it be just that.

Let's try to put the GENI back in the bottle. (Sorry, I couldn't resist).

17May/140

Reframing KS3 – Critically real religion,  philosophy and ethics for inclusion and  progression

Posted by Mike

Zach Beamish-Cook and I were awarded a Farmington Fellowship last year and developed a piece of work around the theoretical underpinnings of our more critically real approach to KS3 RPE (or RS, RE, Beliefs and Values). It never really occurred to me until yesterday that anyone might read it or find it useful.

However, yesterday I received an email from a HoD in Norwich thanking us for the work and so I thought I'd post the work here for anyone else who might find it helpful. If you're trying to develop your RPE to make it more rigorous and inclusive I'd encourage you to have a read. Hope it's of some use to people! We've also found it useful for justifying and explaining the subject to those in senior leadership. (On that note, if anyone is going to this year's Farmington Conference you might like to hear my colleague Richard Kueh, whose fellowship has been looking at exactly the way we explain the rationale for the subject to senior leaders, governors, other departments and parents).

You'll find our full report here: Reframing KS3 – Critically real religion,  philosophy and ethics for inclusion and  progression

15Jun/110

Teachers: To strike or not to strike?

Posted by Mike

In short: to strike.

As a teacher and a member of the ATL I feel quite strongly that we should take action against the government's pension proposals. Teachers are being asked to contribute more to their pensions (6.4% up to 9.6%), to work for longer before pensionable age (up to the age of 68), and to receive less of a pension when they finally do retire.

As much as I'd love to say that teachers are in the job for the love of it (which most are), it's not quite as simple as that. There is a social contract between teachers and society. We understand that we are unlikely to earn what we could had we become lawyers or bankers. We work long hours, which are often draining intellectually and physically (and yes, the holidays are good, but most of us do work in them). In return, teachers ask that they can retire comfortably. The government is undermining the substance of this social contract with their pension reforms. In 2006 the unions agreed changes to the Teachers' Pension Scheme that was intended to take into account the problem of increased life expectancy. The changes now feel more like an attempt to plug a hole in the public finances rather than come to a fair arrangement.

Pension reforms will damage education

The government has already axed much of the funding for teacher training and cut training places. This already discourages good candidates for applying to the profession. To significantly reduce the benefits of a teacher's pension will further discourage people.

Also, who wants their children to be educated by people well into their 60s who want to retire (and is disgruntled about their pension)? I, for one, find the prospect appalling.

A discontinuous strike will not harm children's education

A day towards the end of the summer term, when students aren't to be sitting exams, will do no long term damage to a child's education. For the government to suggest that it will is disingenuous.

An irritated profession, who have their good-will stretched further, will be damaging to education.

United strike action is essential

I'm fortunate enough to work in a great school. I love going to work! It would be tempting to think that causing trouble in a school that I like is counter-productive. However, it's important that teachers send a message to the government as a whole. We shouldn't necessarily strike for our own benefit, but consider the future. My mind is not fully made up yet, but my inclination is that I ought to strike for all of those teachers who struggle every day with difficult students and over-bearing management. I ought to strike for all of those would-be teachers who may be put off from the profession. Ultimately, I ought to strike for the students whose education will be damaged by these ill-considered reforms.

14Jun/112

SlutWalk: a helpful way forward?

Posted by Mike

I've been mulling over the concept of a SlutWalk for a little while now. The whole idea is rather troubling for me (and perhaps that's a good thing), but I can't help feel that, while the root message is important, the means used are ultimately unhelpful.

Let me state clearly at the outset that I thoroughly agree with the notion that sexual abuse is never acceptable. It is unacceptable to "blame" a girl (or boy, for that matter) for being the victim of sexual assault on the grounds that they were dressed in a certain way. The message needs to be clearly heard that sex is a gift that must not be misused and cannot be taken from an unwilling victim.

It cannot be justified to say that a victim of sexual assault was "at fault" because of the way they were dressed. The causality is nothing like so clear cut and any implication that it is must be rejected. However, at the same time it is simply not the case that the way we dress makes no difference to the way others perceive us. Of course it does, and indeed there is nothing inherently wrong in allowing the way someone presents themselves to inform one's assessment of that person. It is nonsense to suggest that we should be neutral in our dealings with other people. Humans are meaning-making beings and we seek to understand the things that we encounter; it is right and proper that we should make use of all the information available to us in doing so. This includes the content and tone of a person's speech, their manner, their body language and yes, their attire.

Now, it does not follow that a man should observe a girl's clothing and make a judgement that she is "up for it". Such a judgement would be rightly condemned if this man were to forceful sexual advances as a result of it. However, it may be legitimate to ask oneself about the message that someone's attire is intended to convey. It is disingenous to say that our clothing says nothing about us at all. Who would not look at a bishop in full episcopal dress and not formulate certain assumptions (note, not conclusions) about aspects of that person's character and thinking? Who would not see a policewoman walking down the street and infer (rightly or wrongly) that she was a law-abiding citizen? Who would not walk past a gang of hooded teenagers and wonder (probably wrongly, but wonder none-the-less) about whether they were up to no good?

The problem we have is about the extent to which these judgements (often unconscious) are justified. We have to ask ourselves where these ideas come from and whether the stereotypes that lie behind them are legitimate. Often they are not. Unfortunately, the perception that a girl dressed in a certain way is "fair game" is a widespread one. The issue is how we deal with this perception.

My hunch is that we have a problem in society with increasingly making a separation between "sex" and "love" (or, at least, committment). Of course it would be absurd to hark back to an age in which sex was purely the preserve of the marital bed. Promiscuity has always existed, fleeting sexual encounters have always taken place, haystacks have always been the setting for an impromtu romp. However, there has been a change in the public perception of casual, uncommitted sex, and this leads to a problem.

Let's consider a recent Lynx advert. It starts with a couple in bed enjoying the warm glow of morning. Over the next 40 seconds we see these two retrace their steps back to the supermarket where they had met the day before. Before they part we see the fleeting glance of those who never expect to see each other again. At this point the words appear: "Because you never know when" and cuts to a man spraying Lynx deodorant. The message is clear: if you have a chance encounter in a supermarket you want to smell nice because you never know where it might lead. Presumably the logic of the advertsers is that people want to meet strangers and have sex with them at the drop of a hat; the idea of a random sexual dalliance is good and we want to place our product in the creation of it.

I'm exremely uncomfortable with this.

I'm yet to meet anyone who, when the chips are down, has said: "I love meeting someone in a club, going home with them, having sex, and then leaving the next morning". Of course, people brag about such happenings but I've never spoken to someone who has set the machismo aside and still said the same thing. I have, however, met people who have been hurt by such flings and also people who have become trapped in cycles of unhappy promiscuity. This may well be to do with the circles I move in. If anyone would like to argue with me on this point I'd be interested to hear it. My questions are, when did we get to this point? When did we agree that it is a good idea for one of the most intimate things a human being can do to be treated with such a casual attitude? Where does this leave the male perception of women and their value and worth? How might such an attitude encourage a man to even ask himself if the girl he is dancing with is "up for it"?

Oh dear me, I've rambled. Where does this leave the SlutWalk?

If you've followed me this far then perhaps you'll agree that simply asserting the right to wear what one likes doesn't necessarily resolve the problem. While most men probably do need to reflect on their attitude to women and their sexual objectification, it is perhaps unhelpful of women to assert their right to dress in a sexualised way. This does nothing to challenge the perception that casual sex is a good thing. While men do need to hear that "No means no", perhaps women need to acknowledge that the way they dress can potentially propagate the idea that they are objects available for casual sex.

It is not as simple as "It's my hot body, I do what I want" (as one placard read). Just as it's neither kind nor helpful to parade your glass of wine in front of an alcoholic, it's not a helpful step to assert one's sexuality in front of someone who measures their own self-worth in notches on a bedpost. The way we act and present ourselves affects other people and the message that it's "their problem" if they can't handle it only holds a limited amount of weight. We need a solution to the problem of the increasing meaninglessness of sex in society.

I don't think I've expressed myself very well here. If I haven't then I'm sorry. However, I strongly feel that the language of "rights" is often unhelpful when it's divorced from the language of responsibility and I fear that the SlutWalk movement, though laudable in many ways, will not lead to a long-term solution to sexual violence.

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5May/112

Reflections on standing outside a polling station

Posted by Mike

This evening I stood for an hour or so outside my local polling station with a Yes to AV sign and a few fliers. The local campaign had asked me to do this to offer any unsure voters the chance to ask any questions still unresolved for them. The response I got was unexpected...

Whenever I caught someone's eye on their way into the polling station I smiled and politely asked if they still had any unresolved questions about the AV referendum. The majority of voters said, "No, thanks! I've already decided." Fine. A few added a cheeky, "Don't worry, I'll be voting Yes." A few added that they'd already decided to vote No. All fair enough.

However, a significant minority got a little huffy as if I'd said, "I hope you're voting Yes" or "Which way are you planning to vote?" One woman came out after voting and approached me. She said she'd voted Yes and was passionate about it, but was worried that the campaign was using Nazi-like tactics to hassle voters (yes, she used the N-word).

I guess I've learned today that people are extremely protective about their vote. They hold their right to vote dear. The Yes campaign needed to persuade people that AV will not diminish their vote but enhance it. We won't get another chance at this in my lifetime to make this change. I hope they have done enough.

3May/111

The shame and misinformation of the No to AV campaign

Posted by Mike

I was dismayed to come home today and find that the No to AV campaign have written to my house again. They've written to everyone in the house except me (what do they know about me and how?!)

Their flier was full of outrageous misinformation and poor argument so I thought I'd rebut some of it (again).

"Vote NO to the Altervative Vote on Thursday because..."

...it will produce more coalitions. Under the AV system, we would have coalitions most of the time, with Nick Clegg deciding who would be Prime Minister by cutting a deal behind closed doors after the election

Where to start with this? Firstly, there is little evidence that AV will produce more coalitions. We simply don't know how people would have allocated their second/third/fourth preferences had AV been in force in previous years so it's difficult to project backwards. My guess would be that Tony Blair's landslide in 1997 would still have happened under AV but we simply don't know. Anyway, are coalition governments by definition a bad thing? I don't think so.

The other major problem is the ad hominem argument against Nick Clegg. The campaign to change the voting system is NOT about the results of the next election, or the one after that. We are talking about a change that could last hundreds of years. It is simply not acceptable to argue against AV because we don't like Nick Clegg (just as the Yes to AV argument isn't made any stronger by saying "The BNP are voting against AV so we should vote for it"). The question is about how we can deliver an electoral system that most fairly and democratically represents the will of the people. The issue of which system will be most beneficial to the party one happens to like is neither here nor there.

...it is only used by three other countries in the world - Fiji, Australia and Papua New Guinea - and Australia want to get rid of it.

Oh, good Lord! Firstly, I am not aware of ANY other country in the world that uses our bizarre form of FPTP. The argument that hardly anyone uses the system is not a good one in favour of FPTP. Besides, what's wrong with doing things differently? We were one of the first countries to legislate against the slave trade. I'm sure plenty of people said, "No-one else is doing it so we shouldn't either". Does that make the slave trade a good thing? No.

Secondly, the No to AV campaign have greatly exaggerated the claim that the Australians want to get rid of AV. Antony Green, an Australian, despairs at this misinformation.

...it allows the second or third placed candidates to win. We could end up with third-best candidates becoming MPs.

Well, this really depends on your definition of "winning". If winning is a matter of rallying your core support in order to get to Westminster on 30-40% of your constituent's votes then FPTP is for you. If, on the other hand, you consider winning to mean reaching out to at least 50% of the voters in order to be an MP then AV your system. I'm not the only one who thinks the second definition of winning is preferable!

In reality, the only times in which the "third best" candidate could win is if there was a close three-way split between three candidates and the third candidate happened to garner significant support from those who put the fourth/fifth/sixth placed candidates first. If the top three candidates got 30%/29%/28% respectively and the third candidate then had significant numbers of votes from the remaining 13% of the electorate after redistribution then I'm not sure (s)he'd be considered "third best".

...it will cost the country £250 million, at a time when money is tight

How much longer will this lie go on? No-one is planning to buy voting machines. The only extra expense will be the extra pencil lead it takes to write "1, 2, 3" rather than a cross. The only technology required is a pencil and paper.

Sure, it'll take a little longer to count, but it will be worthwhile.

...it means that someone else's 5th preference is worth the same as your 1st

Nonsense! I've written about this here.

...it will mean that supporters of the BNP and other fringe parties would decide who wins... that will encourage candidates to pander to the likes of the BNP

Yes, it is true that (God willing) BNP candidates will be knocked out at an early stage and their votes will be redistributed. However, to suggest that this means that candidates are likely to pander to the BNP for votes in ludicrous. Do they seriously think that candidates will start saying: "I'm planning to kick out all the foreigners and withdraw from the EU" in order to attract far-right votes? As everyone knows this would lose candidates more votes than it would gain them. It does, however, mean that green issues might be taken more seriously when the minority of Green votes is to be redistributed.

No candidate is going to become schizophrenic because of AV. Candidates will still have to have clear policies upon which they hope to be elected. Any candidate that says one thing to one voter and something else to another will soon find themselves with no votes at all, and rightly so.

Conclusion

Is there anyone to whom I can complain? Points 2 and 4 in particular contain downright lies. I will be appalled if this referendum is voted down because of this shameful campaign.

Yes to AV!

23Apr/113

Why I will be voting “Yes to AV”

Posted by Mike

A lot has been said and written about the forthcoming referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system. As many have commented the level of debate has often been poor and come down to shameful ad hominem arguments or simply criticising the other campaign. There are many good articles already out there on this issue (I recommend Gower on AV in particular, LibDem Voice has some good ideas too) but I thought I'd set out a simple post outlining the positive reasons why I plan to vote yes to AV. It is not intended to criticise the "No" campaign; this is a plea for AV as a positive step for our democracy. Here goes:

AV is FPTP

My first argument is that AV provides a genuine first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. The current system doesn't actually have a fixed "post". The current race is not set up with a target other than to beat the other candidates and one vote is enough to do this. This can (and does) mean that in some constituencies the winner can have 30% of the vote as long as the other 70% is suitably split between between the other candidates.

AV is quite different. The "post" is set at 50% and the winner is the first person past this fixed target and guarantees that whoever wins has a democratic mandate from a majority of the (voting) constituents. No longer can candidates rely on a "core" vote safe in the knowledge that most of the time 40% of the vote will suffice. Candidates are compelled to reach out to a broader range of voters because even those who don't put them as first preference may be important.

AV preserves and enhances the principle of "one voter, one vote"

A dearly cherished principle of parliamentary democracy is that every voter is equally important. AV preserves this principle and, I believe, develops it. As a recent letter to the Times observed AV is, in essence, a highly efficient way of holding a series of elections in which candidates are knocked out one by one until a candidate has the democratic mandate of getting to the 50% "post". In each round of voting each voter gets one vote and the (reasonable) assumption is made that if your first preference candidate is still in the running at any stage then they will still be your first choice. If your first choice has been eliminated then your second/third/fourth choice gets your vote.

This seems highly reasonable to me, much akin to presidential "run-off" votes that other countries have when there are more than two candidates. However, instead of the costly and time-consuming process of having separate votes, it is done through the simple process of ranking candidates in order of preference.

By doing this we enhance the "one person, one vote" principle by ensuring that no vote is "wasted".

AV reduces the potential for "tactical voting"

Although there is clearly some scope for "tactical voting" under AV it is greatly limited. Where the current system can lend itself to voting for a candidate one doesn't really want in order to avoid getting an MP that one definitely doesn't want, the AV system encourages us to vote for people we DO want, safe in the knowledge that we can still express dislike for other candidates through our other preferences. Our voice is heard in the first round of voting (even if we don't expect the candidate to win) but we can still express a preference for a candidate we think is likely to be in with a chance. Surely this is a good thing.

Consensual politics is good politics

Much has been made of the idea that AV is likely to lead to more hung parliaments and coalition governments. Am I the only one who doesn't think this would be a bad thing? Many people argue that clear majorities produce "strong" governments who can get through significant change. My perception is that large majorites produce governments that can steamroll policies through Westminster with little consultation. This can be done even without clear democratic mandate in terms of vote percentage (have a look here for a few examples).

Under coalitions or small majorities government is forced to seek consensus and a "middle way". Is this a bad thing? I am glad that we have a Lib-Con coalition in that I am glad that the Lib Dems have the power to put in place safeguards which I suspect would not be in place if the Tories were governing alone. Under this government we have seen a significant increase in the personal income tax allowance and many packages to support poorer students who will be put off by larger tuition fees (and I am cross that not more has been made of these). This comes as a direct result of forced negotiation and discussion as a result of a hung parliament. Good. Hung parliaments are not a bad thing by definition.

(On a separate note, it is rather difficult to "model" the results of previous elects had AV been in force given that we do not know what other preferences would have been expressed. It is hard to predict whether AV would in fact lead to more hung parliaments).

AV preserves a constituency link

One reason I prefer AV over proportional representation (PR) is that it preserves a clear link between the voter and their parliamentary representative. I am lucky enough to have an excellent MP (Julian Huppert, who makes excellent use of new technology to keep constituents informed - good man) and I do think it's important that an MP represents a particular group of people and is accountable to them. AV ensures that an MP will represent their constituents and that a majority will have expressed a preference for the person elected.

There are many reasons to vote AV and the main ones for me have been outlined above. I sincerely hope that people will engage in honest debate on this issue and seek arguments rather than sling mud. If electoral reform does not go ahead on May 5th then I fear it will not do so in my lifetime. Now is the time! Yes to AV!

Further links: