Monday, 23 May 2016

Less Free Speech than EU think.

I'm losing the will to live with the EU referendum campaign. Watching politicians,  experts and even celebrities sharing the latest soundbites and half-baked statistics whilst shedding their previously valued veneer of respect is often entertaining but it's currently worse than watching a car crash in slow-motion.

What really bothers me is the complete avoidance of the key topics most people I converse with wish to discuss. All campaigners are so keen to steer our thinking towards their next half baked statistic that in their arrogance they remove the opportunity for free speech which might avoid the unthinkable - which is playing out like some sinister horror movie across the Atlantic right now.

The single biggest reason for Donald Trump's appeal is not his success, his offer of something different or his manifesto. It's something much simpler. Trump offers a forum for American voters to voice their concerns, speak their fears and discuss their opinions. And we should find that rather scary.

You see people are actually capable of independent thought, despite the prevailing view of campaigners in the EU Referendum here in Britain. We do have concerns, views, opinions and - shock horror - some of them might be informed and educated. Ignoring them doesn't make them go away - it just polarises opinion and pushes such concerns into extreme territory - which is actively encouraged at present in the way the question of immigration is viewed by the Remain campaign. But unless such concerns are aired, discussed and evaluated in a moderate forum, people are either pushed or pulled to the extremes, which invariably offer the opportunity to do so - at great cost to the Centre ground which is daily losing moderate voters. The irony is, political correctness, and political arrogance are costing this debate it's moderate centre ground.

Personally I have two very simple questions I would appreciate an answer to before 23rd June. Firstly, the question of economic migration. At the very mention of the word "migration", half of social media have added me to their "Crazy UKIP Voters" list and every other word I might add is ignored. But branding me a racist prohibits me from discussing this question sensibly, and I am utterly uncomfortable with either the far right or far left groups who would encourage me to voice my concerns - then offer an unpalatable response.

For me it's about numbers. Numbers of people in the country, a country already heavily populated, a country which has suffered a massive cut in public spending already, and a country in which public services are already trimmed to the bone. I would not expect the people already struggling in this country to have their expectations, support and services cut further because we have an open door policy.

And that's it. That's my concern.
I wish to know how this might be addressed - but not by an anti-muslim, anti-immigrant or anti anybody politician, by someone who respects this as a reasonable concern. It's not loaded, I'm not a racist and agree people are not numbers, but when there is a six week wait for GP appointments, when my son's Statutory SEN support is required to help teach new arrivals English and when I hear Health Visitors have case loads of 8000 children it IS a valid concern.

My second concern is more of a question, which absurdly no one seems to be able (or willing) to answer.

What is the net cashflow to the EU from the UK? How much do we pay them, and how much do we gain in subsidies and investments? I find it hard to fathom how someone as allegedly well-educated and well paid as George Osborne is completely unable to ever answer the first part of that question. In the news we have heard wildly different figures from £130m to £330m per week. If my son can cope with AS Core 1 Maths then seriously, can these "experts" not provide me with an answer? And whilst I appreciate A Level Statistics is probably significantly harder now than in George Osborne's sixth form days, he really should make more effort than his recent offerings.

Joking aside, this referendum has demonstrated clearly the insidious results of limiting free speech, of directing people, fobbing them off with "road closed" signs on discussions that people *need* to have. The result is a Carnival of Animals - or a Chimps Tea Party might be more precise. In a democracy, you ought to respect your electorate, even if you are unable to control them and Free Speech is one of the few weapons we have against extremism.

Friday, 20 May 2016

Enough is enough.

If I hear one more comment about "raising standards" in schools I might scream. As a (previously) staunch advocate of improving teaching in our schools, of promoting excellence and raising aspirations, I'm vaulting over the fence now and saying STOP.

Enough is enough.  

The UK (and England in particular) has an unprecedented teenage mental health crisis. At least one teenager you know will be suffering from mental health issues, which will be a product of the environment in which they live. I know many - far too many. Children suffering so acutely some threaten to take their own lives. Why? Because at a desperately young age they believe they are failures - and that every door to a possible bright future is closing.

Now I'm not about to suggest that attempting to raise standards in schools is the only factor in the emotional welfare of our young people but it's a pretty big one. The student who works flat out, many hours a day and regularly attains top scores in past papers deserves to have a satisfying experience in their public exam. To be challenged yes, to be stretched but not to the limit of their human endurance. When I hear of students leaving exam halls early, or rushing to the toilets straight afterwards to be sick, sobbing in hallways and saying their "life is over" because their University place is lost to them... my blood boils. These are not kids who can't be bothered, those who struggle academically or those who are outside the system. Indeed some of these are model students with offers from Russell Group Universities and bright futures ahead of them. But all these young people are the adults of tomorrow, whom we will rely on to run this country long after we have retired. Do we really want to break them before they have got started in life?

Our young people have so much to contend with. Social lives that intrude on their every waking moment - there is no escape now with the tentacles of social media permeating into previously safe spaces. There are many, many more applicants for sixth forms, apprenticeships and university places - partly due to a rising domestic population and partly due to migration from the EU. University tuition fees which are set to rise from next September and costly living expenses. They repeatedly hear how "exams are getting easier" and "it was much harder in my day" from every form of media plus family and friends, yet no one fully appreciates the insidious impact "raising standards" is having on all our children.

My ten year old sat a reading comprehension on Dickens' Pickwick Papers this week. He's a bright kid - near top in his year at a selective school. But the first thing he said on arriving home afterwards was that he was "certainly never going to read any book like that in future".

What a tragedy. To gain a certainty that the works of Dickens (and probably similar classic authors) holds nothing for you at age ten is up there with killing off the Tooth Fairy or Father Christmas for a preschooler. You see, artificially injecting age inappropriate work several years down doesn't raise standards. It raises anxiety, raises a sense of failure, raises a real lack of confidence which permeates into other areas of life and raises the incidence of mental health problems in our children.

And you can hardly have missed the news this week that Finnish schools rank top in the world for academic achievement. Whilst scoring is always subjective and this might be questionable, they undoubtedly do well.  I wonder if you watched the videos of countless interviews with Finnish teachers, asking them what their secret was?


Sounds so twee doesn't it? Yet it's a widely accepted fact that the happy child learns fast and unhappy children rarely learn at all. In actual fact, children learn in spite of Eduction, in spite of teachers and in spite of schools. They are learning all the time and until we realise this our education system will remain stuck in the Dark Ages back to where it is currently hurtling. We can guide, enthuse, challenge and mentor young people - but the idea formal Education should be the transferral of a body of knowledge into the brain of each and every young person is so very wrong.

Children are innately curious, eager to learn and naturally enthusiastic. Many times I have written about my second son who has Autism. How he craves knowledge and once his interest is piqued he will devour information and visibly grow as a person as he learns and gains confidence. But the second you impose a requirement to learn too fast, to tackle anything he is not developmentally ready for - the anxiety kicks in, the panic ensues and he ceases to function. This is a more obvious process that all children and students go through when forced to "learn" something they are not yet ready for. And they end up learning nothing at all - because no one can learn when in an acute state of anxiety.

But what of our older students, do too many receive an A*? Have exams become easier? And should be not be aiming to have the most accomplished school leavers in the World?

There might indeed have been a time when this was the case, but I assure you nothing could be further from the truth now. The stakes have never been higher, and neither has the insurmountable mountain which must be climbed to gain a good grade. Too many young people are dropping hobbies, skills and not nurturing talents in activities which promote mental wellbeing because they are focussing solely on their school work - because the message they are hearing is that it matters above all else, to the exclusion of all else and that success is the only thing which is important. And yet the inconsistency is crippling! Deprived of any broader perspective by this false ethos, students are then robbed of any credibility or reliability in public exams. An A grade this year will not be comparable to last, to another subject, to another A level years ago. Explain that to employers and universities. This injustice of this expectation escalation is quite shocking.

So if I had one message for anyone studying for public exams this summer it is this:-
You are lucky enough that you will have many lives, many opportunities and chances that you cannot even know about yet. This is only one - one route amongst many. Yes it matters, and yes you should give it your very best shot, but don't let it define you, or limit you. It's just one path in the complex web of life and there will be others, so many others. If you went on a journey and the road was blocked, would you go home? No, you might curse then try a different way. That's all this is, a test in map reading the Atlas of Life. You only fail the test if you give up and go home.

The following websites offer advice and information for parents and young people dealing with mental health difficulties:-

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