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Posts from the ‘politics’ Category

Teaching Race

February 16th, 2018


Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History episode Miss Buchanan’s Period Of Adjustment is a fascinating, disheartening tale about the backlash from the USA’s famous Supreme Court ruling – Brown v Board of Education.

Gladwell describes how the end of legally enforced racial segregation in American schools led to the firing of black school teachers. As student bodies were integrated, white school leadership fired black teachers on pretexts ranging from competence to attitude. In many cases, white parents would not accept black teachers for their children. Unlike Brown v Board of Education, their appeals failed.

I had never heard this appalling story. It deserves to be told.

Diane Ravitch on the state of the USA’s education system

March 29th, 2011


Diane Ravitch describes the ills of the USA’s education system. There are echoes of the policies of both the last Labour government and the current Conservative government (yes, yes) in what she says. I worry that this is the UK’s future:

Divergent Thinking and Standardisation

March 6th, 2011


More or less, this is what I think, too.

Elections, Journalistic Rhetoric, Electoral Reform

May 8th, 2010


On May 6th the British People voted for a hung parliament.

There is a tradition in journalism to seek to reduce complex issues down to the simple; to form a narrative which describes in terms that a casual reader/viewer/listener can consume with the minimum of effort. So far as the reduction accurately describes the situation they attempt to convey, the journalist succeeds.

Facts are simple, but their analysis is complex. Let’s start with some facts: excluding the one constituency that has not yet returned at the time of writing, 29,653,638 people voted in 649 constituencies for dozens of parliamentary candidates, the majority of whom were representatives of political parties. Within each constituency, candidates who received the most votes won their seat and became an MP. 306 of those were Conservative, 258 were Labour, 57 were Liberal Democrat. Other parties got 28 seats between them.

The first-past-the-post system means that the votes for a losing party in a constituency count for nothing. If we disregard these votes, then actually 13,863,530 people voted for their MP, which is 47% of the overall turnout. 7,279,220 voted for a Conservative MP which is 25% of all the people who voted. The turnout was around 65%, so as a percentage of people who could have voted, the people actually responsible for returning the 306 Conservative MPs constitutes 16.25% of the electorate.
(Data Source The Guardian DataBlog).

As I have suggested, analysis of these results is complex, so I will attempt to be minimalistic in my interpretation. What is clear, I think is that the signal that is produced by this (perhaps any?) election is chaotic, and complex. However the analysis that the the British People ‘spoke with one voice’ is absurd. Patently they spoke with many, many voices. How then can the journalistic trick of reducing the signal of the election down to the pithy simplification that “the British people voted for a hung parliament”? It confuses intention with consequence in the most pathetic manner. To restate it correctly, the British people voted, the result of which is a hung parliament.

So What?

The electoral system manipulates the votes of the electorate to produce a result. If you infer from the consequences of the vote to what the voters intended then you are bound to ascribe to the voters their support for the electoral system. That is to say, because the result was a hung parliament, voters voted for a hung parliament. Or, going further: Voters got exactly what they wanted. Concluding by going further still on this grotesque line of reasoning, therefore Voters rejected electoral reform; they got what they voted for.

Wait, what? If you remove the result from that, doesn’t that come down to arguing that because voters voted under a particular electoral system, they voted for that electoral system? That line of reasoning is preposterous. Surely no serious journalist would use such a slight-of-logic?

Kay Burley, Sky News

This interview exchange between Kay Burley of Sky News and David Babbs of 38 Degrees may sound familiar…

  • Burley The public have voted for a hung parliament, we got exactly what we voted for
  • Babbs What the people voted for [we believe] is they voted with hope for something better…
  • Burley 65% of the public who were eligible to vote, voted for a hung parliament
  • Babbs Yes, and people who… [gets cut off, the first of many]

Kay Burley’s analysis of the election is exactly the sort of lazy analysis I suggested above. She does herself no favours by the interview disintegrating into a series of ugly attacks on Babbs that is frankly painful to watch, but the crux of the interview is that she has swallowed the ‘voted for a hung parliament’ narrative lock-stock and barrel, and refuses to discuss electoral reform outside that narrative.


The real argument about electoral reform is about enfranchisement. This goes back to my earlier numbers; it could be argued that if the Conservative party were to govern as a minority, then only 16.25% of people in the country are responsible for that government, or 23.5% if you include the people who voted for Conservatives who weren’t elected, or 36.1% if you further disregard the people who did not vote. Whichever percentage you choose, they achieved 47.1% of the seats at the election. There is the source of the inequality that Babbs is arguing against.

The discussion about electoral reform should be: can people live with an electoral system that has that statistical reality? The only relevance that the current election should have in this discussion is that the result brings about the sorts of power brokerage necessary for a discussion on electoral reform to happen at high levels, because the Liberal Democrats could act as king-makers.

This is not particularly relevant to this blog, but I have no other forum on which to express these views. Ordinarily I try not to get involved in such discussions. However, there is much to discuss here from a philosophical and political perspective (as well as a statistical one). If the general election is not being discussed in classrooms, then it should be. I can’t believe that it is not.

If you are interested in doing your own statistical analysis of the election (or previous elections), then the Guardian offers data for you to do so:

Finland’s Education System

April 10th, 2010


An interesting report on Finland’s education system was on the BBC News website today:

Report on Finland’s Education System

I think there are a few things that they miss out from the report, like a very homogenous population, a smaller wealth gap between rich and poor, and a very low density of population. Still, it does paint the picture of an idyllic scenario of an educational system free from interference from politics. I wish a party in the UK would put that in their manifesto!

Proportions v Magnitudes

October 25th, 2009


In the BBC Website Magazine today is an article about proportions and magnitudes. It made me reflect that we often spend time teaching students how to express numbers in different forms, but rarely attempt to give students an understanding of how the numerical forms differ, and what they represent.

This article is a little heavy on the politics for an average maths classroom, but is perhaps useful for A-level students, and is definitely useful for any teachers teaching the IB, as it has excellent cross-over with theory of knowledge. Worth a look

Another Report about Education

October 16th, 2009


The Cambridge Primary Review today published their recommendations for how the primary curriculum and classroom environment should be arranged. The briefing is an interesting read, the headlines of which can be found on the BBC News website.

As I read the part on SATs I reflected on the way in which the relationship between politics and education continues to work to this day. The review argues that SATs narrow the curriculum focus and put pressure on children unnecessarily. It argues that the concept of standards that underlies the system of SATs is “restricted, restrictive and misleading”. It further argues that assessment of childrens’ learning should be detached from assessment of schools’ accountability.

It is perhaps inevitable that this is how education and politics interact: governments change the way education works with an agenda justified by their electoral mandate, but often with no educational justification to back it up. It can then take a decade or more for evidence to be gathered, arguments to be made and reports to be compiled before the deficiencies of the system can be established to the satisfaction of politicians, and the scheme can be scrapped. Then, another government can come in with their agenda and try again.

I knew that SATs restricted curriculum, failed to assess students reasonably and were a monumental waste of time and money, years ago. I’ve blogged about it before, years ago. Most of the bright, intrested teachers that I’ve met have known similarly. But education is one of the few things that governments with mandates can interfere with almost at will, and the obvious truths for teachers on the ground are difficult to express to people living in the ivory towers of Westminster. It’s about to happen again. I believe that the best we can hope is that they (whoever they are) make a slightly less-bad set of decisions in this next round of reforms.

Linguistic Ambiguity and Ignorant Journalists

September 2nd, 2009


Even BBC Radio 4 journalists are unable to recognise the distinction between the following sentences:

  • I do not want Megrahi to die in prison;
  • I want Megrahi not to die in prison.

There ought to be a clear distinction between the intention of the speaker in the two cases: the first does not necessarily convey any intention, while the second takes a clear intentional stance.

On BBC Radio 4 this morning, a five minute interview went frustratingly round in circles because neither the Foreign Secretary nor the interviewer could satisfactorily explain this distinction.

We often use the first form of the sentence when we mean the second, and this linguistic ambiguity was siezed upon in a piece of journalistic opportunisim. Bill Rammel was asked a question about whether the UK government ‘wanted Megrahi to die in prison’. He responded that they did not. The question asked about whether an intention existed; he replied that it did not. He was not asked, nor responded to whether there was the converse intention; he was not asked “Does the UK government want Megrahi to be released from prison before he dies?”, but it is now widely reported that he confirmed exactly that.

Increasingly, it seems that journalists exploit these linguistic ambiguities in order to create a story. No wonder politicians (of every persuasion – I am ambivalent with respect to the different parties) are so careful when asked ‘clear yes and no questions’ and sometimes simply repeat a well-rehearsed phrase. When they are misrepresented so wholly as in this case, can you really blame them?

When they occur, these stories are good opportunities to highlight the ambiguity of language and the care with which language needs to be used to sixth-form philosophy students. It is perhaps the most important practical application of learning philosophy that its students can be forewarned against the pitfalls of such exploitative misrepresentation.

John Gray – An Appreciation

July 27th, 2008


My dad taught Philosophy and Sociology all of his professional life, and in his retirement continues to study and think about these subjects. He recently gave a talk about the work of John Gray to the Erasmus Darwin Society in Lichfield, Staffordshire.

John Gray is currently Professor of European Thought at the LSE, and has been an outspoken and controversial academic throughout his career. He has written about a great breadth of topics, but the thread of thought that ties his work together is his rejection of our contemporary belief in the progress of mankind.

The prepared text of my dad’s overview of Gray’s views is an excellent introductory text, with a good bibliography pointing towards further reading. I would strongly recommend this text to students as an overview of his thought.

John Gray, An Appreciation

Lockhart’s Lament

July 10th, 2008


In an ongoing email conversation within the ranks of the ATM on its purpose and voice within the uk educational establishment, one of our numbers recommended we read Lockhart’s Lament, an article posted on the website of the Mathematical Association of America by Keith Devlin.

Lockhart’s Lament is a a heartfelt plea to the beauty of mathematics, the place of mathematicians as artists, not engineers, and society’s complete miscomprehension of what mathematics actually is.

The article opens with a parody: what if society had the attitude towards music that it currently has to mathematics? Lockhart asks us to imagine a world where students learn musical theory without ever grasping what music is. In this world, students don’t hear music or feel it, it is a word used to describe a formal system, emotionless and austere. Perhaps a few get to understand, listen to and feel music when they get to university. If they try to describe their joy and amazement, people look at them blankly and conjour up memories of their tests on harmonic scales when they were at school.

For Lockhart, Mathematics is in turns the art of explanation and the music of reason. However, it is as poorly understood by modern western society as music is in his imaginary music-less world. Lockhart argues that “there is no more reliable way to kill enthusiasm and interest in a subject than to make it a mandatory part of the school curriculum.” Through standardisation and testing which puts the onus on memorisation over understanding and exploration, the subject is fundamentally undermined.

The breadth of Lockhart’s exasperation is great: from society to schools, to teachers, and universities, but most forcefully to the government and the curriculum. This, written in 2002 is ever more true. It is an unsettling prospect that the USA is further down the road of standardising the maths out of maths than we are in the UK. Perhaps, using them to see into our future we can change it. Reading this Lament strengthens my belief that we must try.

I hope you gain as much enjoyment, and as much fervour from its reading as I did.