Jun 092014
 

The issue of certain faith-based schools is in the media today. Specifically whether certain schools in Birmingham were targeted for take-over by islamic extremists. Lots of allegations floating around with lots of denials.

Determining the truth of the matter is not likely to be easy – do I believe Tory ministers or religious nutters? By nature, I’m inclined to ignore both.

But there is a simple answer to this problem. Take any sort of faith out of all schools; schools are supposed to be about education and not about fairy stories. Any kind of faith activity should be classified as an extra-curricular activity that takes place outside school and has no interference with the normal school curriculum.

It is probable that most faith based schools are relatively harmless, although even the best will lead to a sense of exclusion for those in attendance whose faith does not match that of the school. And of course teenagers are probably the most likely group to change religion or reject religion altogether.

But whenever faith-based schools are permitted, there is always the chance that some form of extremism may creep into the curriculum. And that includes all religions – there are extremist christians who want to block the teaching of evolution as well as extremist muslims, hindus, etc.

Ban ’em all.

Apr 162013
 

In recently announced plans, it appears that the government is going to change the primary school curriculum to include (amongst other things) teaching the times tables up to 12. Now I’m not sure about the other plans, but the insistence on the 12 times table sounds a little to me like an old-school Tory frothing at the mouth declaring that if they had to learn the 12 times table then everyone else should do as well.

Why did we learn the 12 times table? Yes, me too! Who knows, but it may have something to do with 12 inches to the foot. Which of course is totally irrelevant these days given we have sensible decimal based units.

There are those who say that the bigger the times table you learn, the more useful it is. True enough, but once you get past the 10 times table, the incremental value diminishes. And there’s one thing that people forget: Learning the times table is just about the most tedious learning it is possible to do and each extra increment to the size of the times table we teach children should have a damn big incremental value.

Or to put in other words, the larger you make the times table, the more children get turned off maths. Is it worth turning children off maths for those extra 2 numbers 11 and 12? Far better to avoid putting off those children and just teach the 10 times table. If you know that, and a few tricks, then any multiplication is possible.

And frankly a lot of simple arithmetic tricks can be sold as “cheats” which is undoubtedly a nifty way of getting children to have fun whilst learning maths.

 

 

 

Jan 112012
 

According to the BBC it has been announced that the current curriculum for computer training (ICT) in schools is to be torn up and replaced. And curiously enough the new curriculum is to include programming to a certain extent – as people have been urging for decades.

The first programming language intended for use by children was the Logo programming language first developed in 1967. So it is not as if this is a new idea.

To many of us, the most interesting aspect of computers is not that they allow us to use applications such as word processors, web browsers, and the like – all very useful tools that I would not want to give up – but that they can be controlled by programming. This could be as low-level as writing a device driver in C, or could be using some application macro language to automate a tedious task.

It is perhaps an over simplification to say so, but to a certain extent programming is that last bit – automating tedious tasks. Computers are good at tedious tasks; humans are not. We should be “teaching” computers to perform tedious tasks for us, and that is called programming.

Programming can of course get rather tricky particularly the lower the level you are getting to, but it can also be quite easy with an interactive language with more or less immediate results. For instance the old BASIC :-

10 for i = 1 to 80
20 print "Hello"
30 next i

Can be quickly typed in and then run gives an immediate result – the computer “says” hello to you. A simple example that can be typed in quickly, modified to give a more personal result … or enhanced to give different and slightly more interesting results. The immediacy is important to hook people in and interest them in programming.

And programming is not just useful for those who want to become programmers. Someone who has been introduced to programming may well be better able to :-

  1. Better specify to an IT department what they need, or the error they’re encountering. This will save time and money.
  2. Better appreciate what is and what is not possible.
  3. Be capable of automating computing tasks themselves – not quite programming, but very similar.
Jul 102011
 

Or “There’s Nothing Wrong With America That A Good Strong Dose Of Socialism Wouldn’t Cure”

This is of course written from the perspective of someone who isn’t that familiar with the US – I haven’t lived there since the 1970s, and I was a bit young to be making notes on the political situation (although I do remember the aftermath of the Watergate scandal). And I’m sure I’ll wander off course from the initial subject of “socialism”. Of course I do read about the crazy freak show that is American politics these days.

For some reason the word “socialism” seems to cause most Americans to blow up. It seems a bit like a trump card – accuse something of being socialist and you’ve won the argument against it, whatever the truth of the argument and whether there’s any scrap of truth in the notion that some policy may be socialist. Or whether a socialist policy has any virtue … some Americans would rather do things poorly than risk doing anything with a “socialist” label on it.

Anyone growing up in the US could be forgiven for thinking that “socialism” is some form of hideous dysfunction that causes an irrational desire to punish hard working people in the form of making them pay more than their share. Or something.

Funnily enough, the US does have socialist policies, but they are called something else – except when some troglodyte wants to destroy such policies. Think “Medicaid”. Or the US Postal Service.

Why does this word trigger such a violent response ? Well there’s a whole bunch of possible reasons …

Firstly there is a lot of confusion between “communism” and “socialism”. The first is a system of government that espouses socialist economic principles throughout the economy (amongst other things); the second is an economic system where the means of production are owned collectively – usually by the government. Of course socialism is really about a lot more than the pure dictionary definition – things like health care provision for all, pensions for the old, attempts at income distribution (to avoid the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor – which is a pretty big problem right now), etc.

And in reality a socialist regime is likely to socialise only a limited part of industry – the obvious example (for me) being Britain in the 1950s where railways, and coal industries were nationalised but most industries were left alone. In some ways that is a poor example given the history of the railways and the coal industry in Britain after nationalisation, but that overlooks the fact that the industries were nationalised partly because they were already in such a poor state.

Americans often hear “communist” when someone says “socialist”, and start to worry about communism … or to be more precise an authoritarian state labelling itself “communist” (although the Soviet Union was about as communist as my toenail clippings). The origins of this fear of communism are probably related to the establishment of the Soviet Union and more significantly, their establishment of Comintern with it’s mission of establishment of communist regimes everywhere. Through fair means or foul.

Now here’s where it starts to get interesting: In both the US and Britain between the two world wars, there was a considerable level of official interest and concern in the activities of communists and organisations such as Comintern. By chance, Britain’s “spook” community included someone who believed that whilst action could and should be taken against organisations such as Comintern, targeting legitimate politicians such as members of the Labour party was wrong. This may have helped influence the rather more enthusiastic head of MI5.

Whereas the equivalent in the US (Hoover as the head of the FBI) had no such influence allowing his anti-communist zeal to exceed the real danger and cross over into harassing innocents on the left of the political spectrum. This probably helped the anti-communists on the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities which whilst not quite as loony as McCarthy himself, did go far beyond what was acceptable and far beyond what the risk of communism entailed.

I have known people who were member of the old hard left all their lives – including those who insisted on keeping a portrait of Uncle Joe on the wall. None of those were unpatriotic – they may have wanted a socialist government; they may even have wanted a communist revolution. But none would have countenanced being ruled from Moscow.

You might say they were being deceived, and that Moscow was keeping control of an inner core of hard core supporters to take over a left-wing government and hand over control. But that was always an unrealistic option – it would take Russian tanks in the streets for such a government to keep control, which was more than a little unrealistic for the US.

Not that fighting the cold war was wrong. But the winners of the cold war were far more the people living under “communism” in the Soviet Union and satellite states, and the armaments companies. That is not to say that we did not benefit, but the benefits were less direct than is most obviously thought of. After all the threat of nuclear war was there not because the Soviet Union existed (after all they didn’t get nuclear weapons without us), but because we were facing them down.

But that is all in the past, and the automatic rejection by Americans of policies with the phrase “But that’s socialism” is now outdated. Indeed the correct reaction is “Yeah. So what ? It’s also right.”.

The right-wing in the freak show that is American politics today, is a bizarre and perplexing combination of Ayn Rand‘s seductive denial of society, and the fundamentalist christians. Indeed they seem to have combined the worst aspects of both, and rejected any redeeming qualities – the belief in an infectious imaginary friend but discarding christian charity (except to those “deserving” of charity), and the belief in individualism without the responsibilities of freedom – the responsibility to share in the care of the less fortunate.

Many Americans (and to be fair, plenty of others) hate paying taxes to pay for benefits for those less fortunate – direct benefits, educational benefits, health care benefits, etc. There is a belief that an individual’s income is for their benefit alone, and nobody has a right to take it away. Indeed that taxation is a form of theft by the government.

There is an element of truth to the theft argument, but it is very wrong to assume that an individual’s income is solely down to their abilities. There are too many contributing factors to an individual’s ability to earn – and those factors are commonly paid for by society as a whole. Such as police to keep order, armed forces to defend the country, education, etc.

Sure those services might be provided by private companies under some sort of “libertarian” utopia, but none of us are living under one of those right now.  And frankly, historical experience shows that private provision of what are normally regarded as government services has been less than successful – look at the history of fire fighting for example.

The earliest (in modern history) fire brigades were introduced by insurance companies to protect the property of those who insured with them. Sure enough, they refused to save the property of anyone else, but fire is one of those things that does not protect property boundaries – by stopping the fire of your uninsured neighbour, your own property is protected to a greater extent than if you waited until your own property was on fire. So those private fire brigades were privatised and the brigades funded from the public purse.

It’s a rare and unusual person who complains about socialism when the fire brigade comes up, but isn’t this what it is ?

Socialism and socialist policies are not good in themselves; neither are they bad. The virtue of any policy is whether it would be effective … and more effective than what is currently in place. Not whether it is ‘socialist’, or whatever. The label is irrelevant.

May 102011
 

Today a Tory let slip that some in the Tory party may be thinking of letting Universities supplement their income by offering additional places over the current quota to UK students which would be charged at the same rate as non-EU students. Of course they very rapidly back-pedalled from this position, but was it a slip or something that the Tories are planning … in a year or five ?

First of all, a little background. UK Universities are free to charge non-EU students pretty much what they want to within the constraints of supply and demand – pretty much like a business. This can be pretty lucrative for many Universities, and there is a fairly active pursuit of foreign students.

There are benefits and disadvantages to this of course. Foreign students may not always have the best possible English language skills which can conceivably have a detrimental effect on teaching. However offering a limited number of places to foreign students does have advantages that counter this – first of all exposing “native” students to foreign students widens the experience of both groups, and recruiting foreign students adds to the possible pool of expertise to hire the best researchers from.

But allowing Universities to recruit UK students on the same fees as non-EU students ? Well it might sound ok – allow the Universities to recruit students from anywhere to supplement their quota of UK students, but it is an obviously slippery slope from that. Over time the Tories could slowly cut the student quota and leave UK students with eventually little choice other than to pay the “full price” with no support for their education.

Of course the Tories claim that there are no such plans, but do we believe them ?

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