Thursday, 21 June 2012

On Gove, O Levels and education

Hardly a week goes by without some new policy either being leaked from or revealed by the DfE. The education secretary, Michael Gove, seems to live for the irresistible glare of the media spotlight. And his latest brainwave - to get rid of 'dumbed-down GCSEs' and bring back 'rigorous O Levels' (in the entirely objective and balanced words of the Daily Mail) - has certainly garnered a lot of attention.

At the moment, we do not have enough detail, due to the plans being leaked before the DfE was ready to unveil them formally. But let's look at what we do know. The National Curriculum is to be scrapped and instead of a range of exam boards issuing different papers, there will be one gold standard national paper drawn up by a single board and sat by every student. There will be 'harder' exams in English, maths and the three sciences as separate disciplines, as well as history, geography and modern languages. But it is this which is the biggest bone of contention - 'Less intelligent pupils will sit simpler exams, similar to the old CSEs...Questions on these papers will emphasise real life situations like counting change in a shop or reading a railway timetable'. The strikingly elitist and condescending tone is unmistakably Tory, and indeed unions have already warned of a return to 'a two-tier system'. They are right to worry. I'm worrying too.

Underlying the entirety of the Tory-led government's policy on education are a number of erroneous, damaging and politically motivated principles. We cannot yet say if the new O Levels will be just like the old ones, but we can say that Gove is quite the nostalgia freak. He envisages a return to the classroom of the 1950s - think Latin grammar and reciting Tennyson by heart; a solid and traditional 'British' education. Like all rosy and romanticised visions of the Glorious Days of Yesteryear, it is not to be trusted. To see this, look no further than the fact that students will now, just like the good old days, be banned from taking set texts into English exams. This is is an absurd proposal, based on the equally absurd idea that a person's appreciation of literature can be measured through their ability to remember quotes. I can love
King Lear & have a whole lot of interesting, original things to say about it. But if I can't memorise Edgar's speech in Act II, sc iii, I'm fucked. It angers me, because reverting to the old methods of forcing kids to learn passages by rote will make them hate the piece they're studying - and that is a tragedy.

If Gove does indeed want to bring back old style O Levels, he ought to realise that it is a myth that they are so much harder and more challenging that modern day GCSEs. As Adrian Elliot notes in the TES, 'Only the very brightest pupils sat O- or A-levels then - a fraction of the numbers who now sit public exams - and yet they failed in droves'. Moreover, a Cambridge Assessment study of English scripts from 2004 compared with ones from 1993 and '94, as well as O Level scripts from 1980, found that there had been 'an overall improvement in standards. Spelling was better... and in all other respects - content, writing, vocabulary and punctuation - the scripts of 2004 were better than those of 1993 and 1994'. I sat my GCSEs only a year ago, and trust me, they are no walk in the park. They require real knowledge, real skills and hard work. And they are by no means perfect, but I am always deeply offended and infuriated when every results day - without fail - the achievements of so many young people who have worked their socks off, are poopooed in the national media. It seems we enjoy nothing more than lambasting kids - for being rude and boisterous, or withdrawn and antisocial; for being lazy and undedicated, or doing well in their silly and facile exams.

In addition to nostalgia, the holy doctrine of competition also makes up the bedrock of coalition policy on education. Already we have a system dogmatically fixated with league tables, assessments and constant, grinding examination. The belief is that the principle of the markets - that rivalry drives up standards - can be applied just as neatly to schools. New Labour, unsurprisingly, went along with this idea, and the Tories wish to accelerate it aggressively. Free schools, academies, even the possibility of profit-driven schools  - all contemptible assaults on the education system - demonstrate this, and so too does this latest policy. At the age of just 15, kids will be divided into the clever and the thick. Sure, they'll dress it up to make it sound nicer, but that is in effect what will happen if Gove gets his way. As ever, the Tories wilfully ignore the connection between social class and academic achievement. I've heard stories of teachers who can see a bunch of kids on their first day in Year 7, and predict with startling accuracy what grades each of them will get 5 years later. As well as this, the emphasis will be unflinchingly placed - even more so than it already is - on examination success in the 'real' subjects: maths, English, the sciences, languages. Again this is a regression to old methods, and it fundamentally misunderstands the true purpose of education.

In a lecture given to TED in February 2006, Sir Ken Robinson, a highly-esteemed international educationalist, said, 'There isn't an education system on the planet that teaches dance everyday to children the way we teach mathematics. Why? Why not? I think maths is very important, but so is dance...Academic ability has come to dominate our view of intelligence...And the consequence is that many highly talented, brilliant, creative people think they're not, because the thing they were good at wasn't valued at school, or was actually stigmatised'. His words have immediate relevance. The government's elitist and nostalgic view of education is rooted in this intellectual snobbery, which has time only for the A students, while the rest are blamed for their inferiority and given an exam that their weak little minds will hopefully be able to grasp. The system already suffocates creativity, and tells kids that they're only worth something if they excel at calculus or can say something smart about a fancy poem. Screw vocational courses and forget the likes of drama or art or food technology. These are 'Mickey Mouse' subjects, for the lowlier non-academics. It is a crying shame, it is unacceptable and the new O Levels will only serve to cement these notions into crushing rigidity.

It would seem only sensible that politicians who want to improve their country's education system should take a look at the methods of those who are doing a better job. The PISA survey is conducted every three years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and in every survey since 2000, Finland has 'ranked at or near the top'. In Finland, private schools do not exist. Educational establishments are not allowed to charge tuition fees. They have no standardised examinations, but rather a student's ability is assessed by their own teachers, through independent, self-made tests. Moreover, there is zero attention paid to competition and academic supremacy. The focus is on equality and cooperation. Far from a system that splits kids in two based on exam results, the Finnish system is founded on the principle that each child 'should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location'. Maybe there is a reason Finland is ignored by the Tories.

Gove's latest education policy stays true to form, following on from the same ideas which make up all previous proposals. The fact that it was leaked, and was being drawn up behind the back of the Liberal Democrats and without reference to the select committee, shows, once more, a government in incompetent, shambolic disarray. But more than that, they have no democratic mandate with which to impose these reforms. The Tories gained just 36.1% at the last election, and such radical and sweeping educational changes were in neither party's manifesto or the coalition agreement. Worse still, Gove's plans will not even require Acts of Parliament and are designed in such a way as to be practically irreversible once established. As with the NHS, the government has launched a stealthy, concerted and ideological attack on education - dressed up in the words of 'modernisation' and 'improvement'. In the public consultation coming up in Autumn, we must all make as much noise as possible. Unions, schools, teachers and students will fight this tooth and nail, because what is it at stake could not be more important - the education and future of our children and the nature of our society. The case must be made for a fair and equitable educational system, a system that fosters rather than stifles creativity, a system that favours cooperation over competition, a system that snubs intellectual elitism and is committed not to to the excellence of a few but to the fulfilment and well-being of each and every child. We must make that case now, we must make it loudly, and we must win.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Please vote. I wish I could

Voting is a wonderful thing. It's a chance to voice your anger, dissatisfaction or, as the case may be, approval of those in power. We often take it for granted, but when you go into your local polling station and put a cross next to your preferred candidate's name, you're making a statement, a statement which many thousands of people the world over are forbidden to make: "I am a citizen of this country, and I have a say in how its run". 

Cynics, please put down those pitchforks. 

Our system is nowhere near perfect - and if you follow me on Twitter or know me in real life (you lucky thing, you), then you'll be aware that I have no qualms about saying so. Often with lots of swearing. But I do not buy into the apathetic cries of "all politicians are the same" or "voting is pointless". Yes, party politics is often a royal pain in the arse, and the two main players have far from squeaky clean records. Yes, corporations, the financial sector and media monopolies have too big a sway over the agenda. Yes, cash for influence is a huge problem. And yes, the First-Past-the-Post system is an utter joke. But you still have that unalienable right, you still have that unsilenceable voice, and if it didn't matter, the folk in Westminster would not have sleepless nights over opinion polls.

And we should not just bitterly accept the things that make modern politics such a dirty and depressing business. Be active. Join a party that best fits your principles, and if you want to change it, work with others to do so. Write, lobby, campaign, organise - for more transparency, for electoral reform, for money and politics to be separated. Go on protests, occupy shops, shout until you're listened to. Join a union and withdraw your labour. Voting is not an entity in and of itself, it goes alongside the many rights we have as citizens and which enable us to call ourselves a 'democracy'. 

It's very easy to complain, but we forget that we are the ones with the power. We elect individuals not to tell us how to live our lives, but to represent our views. Maybe if we stopped being so apathetic, politicians would stop breaking their promises. Maybe if we stopped lamenting that our vote means nothing, and instead fought for a fairer and more pluralist system, we'd find that a cross on a ballot paper can truly change things. 

These are just local elections, but the point stands. MPs and councillors work for us. If you find their service lacking, bloody well tell them so. If they fail to change, fire them. Don't stay put and capitulate to the lie that there is no alternative. 

Democracy is one of humanity's greatest inventions. I'd like to see it improved - by, for starters, adopting a better electoral system, doing away with safe seats and lowering the voting age (this irritatingly opinionated 17-year-old does not like being disenfranchised). As a socialist, I'd also like to see it extended beyond politics and to the economy, to all aspects of public life. But fundamentally, I'd like to see it valued. Current democracy is imperfect, warped by vested interests, hijacked by oligarchs. But that does not mean it should be rejected by us. It's too important. It's something so many do not have, something so many are fighting and have fought for, often with their lives. It's time we reclaimed democracy and transformed it into what it should be - the voice of the people. So please, don't shun your civic duty. Go out. Organise. Change things. And vote. 

Thursday, 8 March 2012

What feminism means to me

To me, feminism means equality.

Feminism means fighting with every fibre of your being for a better world: one in which a person's sexual organs do not determine the rest of their life; one in which a person is not harassed, abused and oppressed because they happen to have a vagina.

Feminism means combating gender essentialism. It means rejecting and challenging social constructs, it means refusing to accept that little boys play with toy cars, while little girls play with toy dolls; that little boys go out and explore, while little girls stay at home with their pretend miniature kitchens. It means believing that gender is a profoundly complex issue, which can't be reduced to black and white terms. It means inclusiveness, it does not mean transphobia.

Feminism means endless campaigning. It means rejecting the media's idea of wimmin's issues being somehow niche, when this, in fact, is the reality:

Feminism means fighting for equal pay, better maternity laws and free childcare. It means tackling the casual sexism of the workplace. It means demanding that essentials like tampons are free on the NHS. It means lobbying for better sex education in schools, and ensuring advice and contraception are available to those who want and need them. It means standing up to every attempt by the state to control a woman's body. 


Feminism does not mean pushing through a programme of cuts which will hit women hardest. It does not mean closing Sure Start centres and slashing benefits. It does not mean launching an attack on women - of all classes - to pay for a crisis caused by the financial elite. It does not mean cutting vital government funding to domestic violence charities, which could well result in their closure, putting hundreds of lives in very real danger. It does mean putting two fingers up to the vicious clusterfuck of morons who currently govern us. 

Feminism means unity, it means solidarity, it means working together for a common cause, but it also means healthy debate and disagreement. It means confronting the rise of 'free-market feminism', a warped ideology which purports to be in favour of female equality, but it is quite happy with the social inequality and exploitation wrought by neoliberal capitalism. 

Amber Rudd MP, Theresa May MP, Louise Mensch MP and Claire Perry MP 

Feminism means tackling misogyny in public life, both verbal and physical. It means challenging the overt sexism of the the press, which, in the words of Laurie Penny, "is the dirty oil in the engine, the juice that makes the whole shuddering sleaze-machine run smoothly". It means not being afraid to take on a media which consistently objectifies women, which airbrushes models to super-skinny, blemish-free goddesses and then demands that its readers, viewers and listeners lose weight, lather themselves with cream, shave, pluck,  scrub, conceal - lest they displease their demanding male overlords.

Feminism means combating 'banter'. It means exposing the grotesqueness of 'lad culture' and online swamps of chauvinism like UniLad. It means refusing to let rape 'jokes' go unchallenged, for nominally 'humorous' sexist slurs to go unquestioned. It means taking a vocal stand against the likes of this: 

And this: 


Feminism means putting an end - full stop - to slut-shaming. It means making the point that a woman's sex life is her own god-damn business and nobody else's. It means tearing to shreds the idea of a man's sexual promiscuity being amusingly 'laddy', while a woman's is "slaggish" or immoral. 

Feminism means putting an end to rape culture. It means emphasising the point that rape is rape; that it isn't only when a cloaked figure jumps out at you from the bushes. It means challenging and eradicating the inherent sexism of the police, and working to ensure that women are not afraid to report a sexual assault. 


Feminism means rejecting the still persistent idea of women as carers and men as breadwinners. It means smashing the glass ceiling into non-existence, and demanding female representation in the worlds of politics and business, to name just two. It means making a noise whenever a comedy panel show or a current affairs programme has solely male guests. It means challenging the fact that 78% of newspaper articles are written by men, 72% of Question Time contributors are men and 84% of reporters and guests on Radio 4's Today programme are men. 

An Extract from A Doll's House, a play by the 19th Century playwright, Henrik Ibsen:

Nora: What do you consider my most sacred duties?

Torvald: Do I need to tell you that? Are they not your duties to me your husband and your children?

Nora: I believe I have other duties.

Torvald: That you have not. What duties could those be?

Nora: Duties to myself. 

Torvald: Before all else you are a wife and mother. 

Nora: I don't believe that any longer. I believe that before all else I am a human being.

Feminism - and today especially - means celebrating women throughout history and championing the huge progress that has been made; be it universal female suffrage, sexual liberation, the establishment of fairer laws and many more. It means singing the praises of influential, inspirational female figures of the past and present - writers, journalists, scientists, activists, campaigners, pioneers, visionaries. But it also means remembering that the war is far from over; that though leaps have been made, we are still a long way away from full equality. It means remembering that women in every country are still oppressed. It means remembering that feminism's work is not done. It means considering how the mother of feminism - Mary Wollstonecraft - would react if she saw the state of the world 215 years after her death. 

Created by the eternally wonderful @stavvers
Feminism means never giving up. Feminism means standing shoulder to shoulder fighting for a better, more just world. Feminism means faith in fundamental equality. Feminism means laughing, crying, rejoicing, shouting, demanding, challenging, striving. Feminism means getting angry. Feminism means believing in the radical notion that women are fucking HUMAN BEINGS. Feminism means smashing the patriarchy - the kyriarchy - into a thousand tiny pieces.

My name is Sam Liu, and I am a feminist.