Fuckwits

When asked by The Daily Telegraph to submit memories of ‘sex ed’ the result was depressingly familiar, and familiarly depressing. “The teacher was…walking on eggshells”, reads one submission, the teachers were “…very uncomfortable and awkward”, and “all I remember was a teacher putting a tampon in a jug of water, LOL.”  (Do Telegraph readers use ‘LOL’ in everyday life, I ask myself? Maybe they think it means something else.)

Rewind to the mid-1990s and a High School in suburban Preston, surrounded by rows of post-war and 90s housing boom estates and old folks’ bungalows. My recollection of ‘sex ed’ at that school is just as damning; we watched a cartoon featuring a man dressed as an Arab walking backwards to represent the withdrawal method of contraception. In another video, children’s television presenters explained what was meant by the phrase ‘wet dream’. The sum total of all this was the kind of lesson you always marked down as being for dossing about and having a laugh – there was nothing beyond the basic and rudimentary biology of the act of sex; barely anything on life choices, and nothing at all on gender. This was “sex education” as a textbook regurgitating onto the science lab benches, and nothing more.

Whilst most Governments and opposition parties tend to fight over each and every line of national curricula (oh fine, curriculums), there is nothing more contentious than the content of ‘sex ed’. The hubris from both Left and Right, Christian and Secular, open-minded and conservative, produce a terrible, potentially dangerous, sludge of biology and handouts. Badly prepared maths lessons might leave gaps in the knowledge of parallel equations, but it’s the gaps in personal, social and sexual education where the problems really start, particularly at an impressionable age. Fighting over ‘sex ed’ is like trying to push-pull a revolving door, and it appears nobody in a position of power (elected at least) is willing to accept that change has to be made.

That last sentence was going to read “accept that something must be done”, but of course that mindset has been the cause of many problems within years of personal, social and sexual education. “Won’t somebody think of the children” usually means “won’t somebody protect my child from something with which I disagree”, and rarely for good or productive reasons. What we have ended up with is an ugly compromise between social conservatives, religious traditionalists and teachers, with the input pretty much in that order.

The current Department for Education guidance on what they call “Sex and Relationships Education” runs to 62-pages. It’s notable, and somewhat depressing, that the structure of sex education appears so rigid and academic, including the requirement by way of the 1996 Education Act and 2000 Learning and Skills Act ensuring pupils learn about the “nature of marriage” and “its importance for family life and the bringing up of children”. (That’s page six if you’re reading along). Little wonder opponents of gay marriage began to flap around like pigeons at Charing Cross station. “Well children, the nature of marriage has changed, AND IT’S THE NATURE OF THE DEVIL!”

In my day, the lack of Internet……at all….meant additional or supplementary questions came in the playground, or the walk home, or not at all. You wouldn’t want to be the child spotted staying after lessons to ask Mrs Sutcliffe about condoms or puberty or anything like that. To help with the awkward factor all children go through, on-line help is a…well, not Godsend, but fair darn useful, and of course the wisdom of parents, carers and friends will always help.

Of course Schools must have a role in teaching the scaffolding and foundations of both the act of sex and the biological realities of adolescent life. They should have, also, the freedom to go further into sexuality and gender if it’s felt possible to do so, and either within or outside offer help and assistance to pupils who wish to talk about specific problems or questions. Leave “the nature of marriage” to religious education, if it has to be discussed at all; don’t allow young people to become muddled up with the idea of having sex and being married as some kind of token system to qualify through life.

Inevitably we must look at pornography on the Internet (dramatic music, etc.). So much worry and woe about porn makes the debate impossible to hold: no, XTube, PornHub and the rest do not host ‘extreme’ material, whatever that might mean, and yes, quite a lot of material uploaded onto XHamster is actually quite dull/vanilla/out of focus. Children are always going to explore the Internet if parents have chosen not to install locks, just as children of my generation chose to (attempt to) steal copies of “Razzle” from the top shelf. The solution to ‘extreme’ porn can be found in those acts of legislation that already outlaw images of rape, abuse and injury; the solution should not be to potentially force vulnerable young girls into asking their parents if they can be allowed to look at something because the search-term “vagina, discharge” has been blocked on obscenity grounds.

Being mammals and occasionally horny ones at that, humans will always strive to fashion real life around biological urges. Sex education is just another example of that, grown adults trying to pass on the rules of the jungle in appropriate ways. It needs to be a lot better than the by-rote examples of my youth, and far more responsive and responsible to a generation brought up on Internet videos and the influence of sexual imagery on television and magazines. It’s neither useful nor appropriate to hijack sex education with something else entirely, however it might be tenuously related, such as the concept of marriage or the dangers of watching anal sex on a smartphone. It’s not going to be easy, or pretty, to teach young children today about pregnancy, the dangers of trying to make Internet porn into “reality”, or the ongoing fight against sexually transmitted diseases, if it remains impossible to untangle the conflicting arguments from ‘on high’. Let’s try and produce a suitable sex education structure for both digital Britain and the naturally curious/awkward/embarrassed minds of children.

And no cartoons.

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School haze

One vivid memory from my primary school days involves the dire warnings of the future from a traditional old sort of a teacher about the forthcoming “National Curriculum”. His fire-and-brimstone approach painted the newly created world of education would be all “format” and no “freedom”. Standards would be prescribed, classrooms would become cages for our dreams.

That was in the 1990s, and now Education Secretary Michael Gove is undertaking the most significant review since its creation. Somewhat predictably, the review and its remit is tinged with political posturing on all sides of the education debate; is the naming of anti-Slavery campaigners and the axing of Winston Churchill ideological, should children learn from rote, should children be filled with facts without opinion, why should children be forced into formal education in the first place, and so on, so on, so on…

Having been introduced to the NC at its inception, thousands of adults today retain the distant memories of learning certain subjects over and over again every other month (Oh good, the Roman Invasion again, it must be Tuesday!). The new regime was backed up with ‘attainment targets’ and ‘programmes of excellence’. Later on in the process, fake-leather ‘Records of Achievement’ would be handed out, all the better to keep our exam board certificates fresh within plastic pockets. (I have, long since, lost my ‘Record of Achievement’….).

Inevitably, subsequent political changes at Westminster have tended to dictate education reform. Nothing works on the stump more effectively than promising to shake-up the schools. The current National Curriculum document speaks in languages alien to my recollection of High School during the 1990s;

The most significant change is the development of
diploma qualifications in 14 lines of learning at levels
1, 2 and 3. The first five lines – engineering; society,
health and development; construction and the built
environment; IT; and creative and media – will be
piloted in schools from September 2008. The diplomas
combine practical skill development with theoretical
understanding, covering sector and general learning in
applied contexts.

“Society” – and “citizenship”, which now appears to have been scratched – are Labour reforms, and “practical skill development with theoretical understanding” is policy wonk speak which could only have been created by the kind of people my primary school teacher warned against. The tick-box education system did not happen on the day NC was introduced, though it certainly polluted everything else since.

Bad decisions were made in the race to be seen ‘responsive’ to education concerns – most infamously the decision to axe compulsory language education beyond Key Stage 3, effectively denying children the opportunities which come from being able to converse in either modern European languages or the new business world languages of Mandarin or Hindi. Search the current NC documents for “language” and no results are found.

Measuring standards across schools is the priority for Governments, fearful of judgements on the reading, writing and arithmetic skills of the children the State is tasked with educating. Sadly the urgency to be seen succeeding has filled most staff rooms with fog and bluster; it takes years for the education reforms of one Government to be seen “at the other end”, and the increasing impatience for instant results sees children’s educational experiences swapped and changed more times than management away-day agendas. It is hard not to feel sympathy for teachers whose lessons are built from continually changing materials; one year firm-but-fair could become freedom-and-expression. League tables, another on-high prescription for all which ills, force Local Education Authorities into a bizarre competition format within and beyond their borders, although the inability for low- and middle-income families to move children from one underperforming school to another – should they want to – means League Tables are often only useful for one partisan side of the education debate to criticise the other. Parents, children and teachers, whose work ultimately creates those Tables, are left shielding their heads from the sniping.

If Gove is serious about NC reforms, his rationale needs to be far more radical than his Department’s briefing notes suggest. It is shocking to me – as someone who relished learning the little things to keep the brain ticking over – that Ministers have highlighted omissions such as “geography curriculum does not identify any continents, rivers or mountains or name any countries apart from the UK.” If Gove is honest in his endeavour to reintroduce ‘facts’ into the classroom, this deserves support and praise. The curriculum was always ‘alien’ to Britain by its very nature; if it takes one Conservative to improve on the foundations from predecessor Conservatives, then that should be congratulated.

The wider education debate is far more involved than merely publishing new booklets explaining what can and cannot be taught to eager teenagers. The opportunities for learning and expression across younger years has been blanketed under boardroom tussles and Government grandstanding for decades, generations held within the grip of ideology and party politics. Gove is clearly an educational enthusiast, bias cut towards the schooling he received. In the wider education argument drafting prescriptive checklists and targets seem wholly inappropriate.

My teacher was concerned by how the National Curriculum would miss the specifics in its model for the wider ‘ambitions’ for education. I fear he has been proved correct. Gove should making ‘free schools’ with lowercase letters, and axe the National Curriculum entirely.

Lessons of Praise

OFSTED has raised concerns about the teaching of religious education in schools. In response – perhaps inevitably – the Church of England has expressed “concern”, the National Secular Society has suggested RE should become optional.

My memories of RE at school – comprehensive school, how out-of-date a phrase does that sound in this age of Academies – are faded muddles of textbook copying and asking the only Muslim child in the class to write our names in Urdu on the blackboard. The compulsory element of RE was ditched for the final two years, and on the whole we all downed the subject faster than the shared bottle of 20/20 in Gateway’s carpark.

As I get older, my attitude towards the teaching of religion in non-faith schools grows less certain. I used to be pretty ambivalent on the matter, coming to this point via total disagreement – “Parents chose a non-faith school for a reason!”, that sort of thing – to lukewarm support – “If it helps increase understanding between faiths in this difficult time”.

I am not surprised by OFSTED’s observation that teachers aren’t entirely sure what their lessons are supposed to create. My memories include heated discussions on morality and sexuality, far removed from the Year 7 days of copying out from a textbook the basic layout of an Anglican Church. I understand that RE has been diluted into something resembling a high school version of A-Level General Studies, an hour-long free for all where both teachers and pupils are perilously close to crossing into forming their own opinions on political and cultural topics of the day, and I suspect the Department for Education is still uneasy about that.

It is clear in my mind that unease about Islam and other faiths in young people comes from both front-room and class-room. If structured lessons can help explain the basic elements of all faiths, to root out the urban myths and misunderstandings, then in the long-term that could be very good for this and future generations. However, schools have had quite enough restructuring under the previous government, do teachers really need to become ‘citizenship’ lecturers on top of everything else?

The National Secular Society is quoted suggesting that, like the teaching of foreign languages, religious education should be optional. Let’s face the truth on this; pur national reputation for languages is dire. Since becoming an optional subject, the learning of French, German, and Spanish in High Schools has plummeted. The long-term consequences for our economic well being may yet to be fully realised; could the same be said for taking away religion from the timetable?

Could the rise of the English Defence League and such Facebook groups as “Our flag offends you but your benefits don’t!” be linked to a lack of multi-faith understanding at primary and high school levels?

The NSS is right, in my opinion, to cast doubt on the right of the State to decide if doctrine should form a part of the school timetable. The problem clearly is that nobody quite knows what to do with religion now, especially in a nation which will never be as Christian as it once was. As someone who believes in the separation of Church and State, I am nevertheless uncertain about how much children should be shielded from religious teaching within school hours. OFSTED have thrown the debate into the air.

I wonder if anything good (or Good) will come from their report…

Labour Balls Up

Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Cushions and Soft Furnishings, is a notorious arm-twister, class warrior, and in the running to be solely responsible for Labour’s forthcoming defeat the General Election.

His latest wheeze is a £300m Broadband Bribe, with the intention of giving any Labour leaning voter even less incentive to aspire to a better life. As often happens with Labour after a few years in power, they’ve retreated into very safe territory; promote the ‘dependency culture’, label all opponents as ‘toffs’, and take it from there. With the country suffering from the longest, deepest recession in history, you’d have imagined somebody at the Treasury would have at least coughed a bit during the Cabinet meeting to discuss handing out free broadband to people in marginal constituencies, but I understand the idea of saying “No” to Ed Balls brings up combinations of genitalia and vice-grips.

Balls’ bullying tactics will doubtlessly see this scheme rolled out just in time to shore up support in time for the election. Never before has “shameless” been more appropriate a word. If this scheme is all about helping the lowest earners, helping children do the best in school, why has it taken 12 years for the only solution to be the giving away of easier access to Facebook and Bejewelled?

If the worsening state of education is not enough – and there’s plentiful examples of the GCSE system becoming mere window dressing for Labour’s doubtful education ‘claims’ – Ed Balls is of course riding a leadership bid horse all the way to the summer. In another desperate move, MPs from smaller Northern constituencies are being arm-twisted against the idea of moving from First Past the Post to Alternative Vote in time for the General Election. This is Balls’ aim to keep as many on-side MPs returned to the Opposition Benches, without the hassle of a fairer voting system or cut in MP numbers getting in the way.

It doesn’t take a flick through a GCSE Politics textbook to see where this idea comes from.

There really is only one shot at getting education right. My personal view on the state controlling schools has been coloured ever since the National Curriculum appeared to clip the wings of every decent teacher in my school – “What, the Romans
again?”. Now education policy has become overtly politicised, school building programmes wrapped up in debt-laden schemes, children forced to take too many exams and generally under achieving. Children unable to even write their own name after 5 years of a Labour government (and this hasn’t got much better) is one of many ‘milestones’ currently along the route leading to Ed Balls’ door.

“Class war” is a tired and extreme tactic often used by desperate members of the left-wing looking for some mud to throw in times of trail. Given the state of school education in this country, I suppose it is not surprising that Labour have not learned the lessons of such electioneering…

16

Thomas Burridge is the eighteen year old candidate for the UK Libertarian Party at tomorrow’s Norwich North by-election. His age has caused some comment, balanced between “refreshing change” to “way too young”. The law changed on minimum age for candidature some years ago with Thomas probably the first 18 year old to be chosen.

Age limits are one of those great controlling levels Government loves to set, not least New Labour who loves any kind of nanny-state control more than most. Recently boosting up the age at which someone can buy cigarettes to eighteen (although not the age of consent from 16, meaning once you’ve had sex at that age you presumably just roll over to fall asleep…)

The more serious point is that of education, where New Labour are once again in a glorified mess, typified by having no actual Department for Education. Their desire to have 50% of school-leavers going to Uni was based on picking a figure from the air; reality has shown massive drop-out rates and students lumbered with a “mortgage on learning” around their necks if they do graduate. My memory from high school is very clear – at 16 I knew that it was sensible to have a ‘fork in the road’ at that age, not least because so many age limits are placed at sixteen – marriage, joining the army, tax on income. Of course moving the age at which someone stays as school to eighteen is a massive error – it forces people for whom formal education is already unsuitable into endless months of activity pushing them further away from the life they would prefer to lead. This eagerness to micro-manage our lives is typical of New Labour; they would rather force all citizens into school, uni, and work, rather than allow people to go out to see the real world.

It is crazy enough that a 16 year old is mature enough, in the eyes of the state, to have consensual sexual intercourse but not enough to walk into a polling station to vote on the parties allowing their wage to be taxed. It is deeply “unjoined” government to ask 16 year olds to stay on at school until they are 18 and then allow them the vote – what would run through your mind but “Now I can punish the party which stuck me here for so long”.

There exists enough vocational courses post-16 to allow those who have done with school to continue with education. New Labour have once again chased targets rather than followed sensible policy. If the State wants to give some sense of maturity and adult status to people when they turn 16, something with which I agree should happen, then the only change to be made is giving them the right to vote.

Moving up the school leaving age is social engineering gone mental, and should be stopped.