What are we educating for?

The other night I went to my first real unashamedly political event, a session organised by the “progressive conservative” bright blue (so new they’re yet to appear on Google) at the British Library, discussing the role of education in 21st century Britain.

The event deliberately went back to first principles on education, focussing on why we bother to send people to school/college/university in the first place, then going on to look at how we need to change our current approach. Hence the title, above.

The speakers really made the event for me, especially as Toby Young’s presence on Newsnight last week had motivated me to put down my own thoughts on the matter.

It must be said that Anthony Seddon generally out-shone Young in terms of stage presence, but the former came across much more so as someone who really wants to make a difference, rather than one who simply offers a critique of current policy.

The two were united in their criticism however, with Young pointing to various studies which have shown how measures such as social mobility (which, if nothing else, education should surely aim to improve?) have painted a worsening picture over the previous 50 years, and Seddon lambasting targets and exams in encouraging a sort of herd-like behaviour, where all effort is focussed on the short-term goal of achieving the best score, rather than in maximising purer academic performance.

As the arguments were developed further, the point was made that the education system focuses too heavily on teaching children to recall facts, rather than to develop the sort of critical thinking and logical reasoning required in today’s fast-moving world. PSE in particular was noted as form of indoctrination, where pupils are taught item-by-item what is right and wrong, rather than being given the chance to decide this for themselves.

There were disagreements between audience members and the panel and at times between the two speakers themselves over how best to formulate an overall educational policy and how to measure it’s outcomes, but there was almost universal agreement that the current system which has served us so well for the previous century is now looking increasingly out-dated, and that despite the personal interest of two PMs and many more high-profile education ministers, the massive investment made over the last few years have not delivered the improvements hoped-for.

The argument was therefore presented that another approach is needed. Seddon was particularly critical of policy for deliberately excluding parents from the education process, arguing that schools and parents must be in line with each other and that a failure to bring the two sides together causes alienation reduces the sense of belonging. Young’s school, if successful, could change this.

As Seddon surmised at the end, we are all common stakeholders in the process of education. We have all been educated, and many people have or may in the future have children who will go through the same process. Current circumstances provide a once-in-a-generation chance to get things right this time, and so now is the time to act.

http://www.brightblueonline.com/

Can Sweden teach us a lesson?

Interesting report on last night’s Newsnight over Tory “dreams” to bring a Swedish-style schools system to the UK, with independent groups receiving funding to operate within the state sector to increase competition and choice.

Radio 4 covered the same topic recently, interviewing actor Toby Young about why he wants to set up a new school here in Ealing. According to Young,

“Our parent group, which is about 250-strong, would apply to be the main sponsor of a new academy… Ours would be the first parent-sponsored academy.”

Doing a bit more digging, it seems Young kicked things off last year with an opinion piece in the Observer. The Ealing Gazette picked this up shortly afterwards and put a local twist on it and more recently, the Guardian and Newsnight re-opened the debate with their own further coverage on the subject.

Labour have taken us so far down the academies route, and (perhaps surprisingly) the juggernaut shows no sign of stopping.

But this is a scheme dreamt up in the heady days of the boom years. Underlying the academies scheme is a belief that the state (in combination with suitably wealthy donors) can play a central role in tearing down the old and replacing it with shiny new facilities, with scant regard for what is there already. Academies have done for the education system what the 1960s did for urban planning, to the extent that bodies like English Heritage now feel compelled to issue warnings.

In Education as in IT, the days of the all-enabling state are well-and-truly over. People have lost patience and the system has run out of money.

As Young’s example shows there are a huge number of people on the ground who think they can do it better and are motivated to do so. These are parents, teachers and others in the community who want to take back some of the control that’s been taken away from them over the last 60 years, first by central government and the LEAs and more recently by the academies. As Antony Seldon says in the Radio 4 piece:

“We’ve had a pretty state-run system for the last 100 years where schools have been run from the centre… and parents have been marched off to go to this school and it’s been pretty ordinary… We need to abandon the factory schools that served us so well in the 20th century and move towards a much more individualised system…”

The Newsnight report shows that the Swedish example is not perfect. Standards must be enforced (this being an ideal  role for the state) and non-profit status should be required for any organisation wanting to set up a new school, but bearing these in mind we can surely do things better by opening the process up further and allowing “individuals and organisations to flourish”.

A Limited Revolution

I’ve spent the last couple of days catching up on recent news, including some of the iPad stuff from the other week.

A few blog posts have pointed out that the people talking about it are probably not the target market for the device, and in any case they’re likely to already own a half-decent laptop/desktop and probably an iPhone too.

But the separation is not just about geeks versus non-geeks, it’s about creators and consumers.

Consumers in the classic sense will love the iPad. It’s designed for browsing the web, reading e-books, listening to music and watching movies. Though iTunes, Apple already makes plenty of dollars from these people and will likely be even more successful with a larger device. A bigger screen means more pixels, and HD means more money.

But for those of us who like to think of ourselves as creators the iPad, with it’s locked-down OS and lack of third party app store support, is not such a good thing. Nor is it helpful if we want to provide the next generation with the tools they need to think creatively and independently, and to encourage them to hack at and mash-up software, services and content.

The iPad may well transform home computing, but that will be as far as the revolution goes. We need more open platforms that we can build on if we’re going to carry on innovating, not another device to lock us further into Apple’s walled garden, and their vision of how computing should be.

There will not be anarchy

Charles Clover declares himself to be a canoeist, in addition to a keen angler, but in his comments in the Sunday Times on the same day of the concluding part of Griff Rhys Jones’s epic journey along the UK’s waterways, he shows his true colours.

What Charles seeks is to limit canoeing on our rivers, a situation helped by the current stranglehold which landowners, farmers and fishing organisations have been able to selfishly maintain over the last few hundred years.

His Times piece hints at such a desire, but in the follow-up interview on today’s Radio 4’s Today Programme he actually states it.

“The Canoeist is a splendid person as long as you don’t have too many of them, or too much canoeing.”

What a pitiful attitude to have, at a time when so many others are fighting to increase participation in sport. We have the Olympics coming to London in 2012, which offers a unique opportunity. We desperately need to increase the number of young people in particular who are engaged in sport, when societal trends and defective policy have resulted in years of decline in participation, if we are to avert a large-scale public health crisis in years to come.

As I’ve stated before, canoeing is not only a great form of exercise, but is relatively cheap to take part in (important in a recession) and gives paddlers a greater appreciation of the waterways and coastlines along which they paddle, and of the effects of human behaviour upon these natural ecosystems.

Far from damaging the environment, greater participation in canoe sport is beneficial to individuals, society and the environment itself. Confining paddlers to only a third of the navigable rivers in England and Wales not only limits participation, but also results in increased pressure on those rivers which do allow it. Griff sums this up well at the end of the Today piece, saying of canoeists,

“If they were spread more evenly around these miles and miles of river, then they would barely be seen at all”

Charles may well be a canoeist as well as an angler, but his views on canoeing echo his general sentiment on rivers – he wishes to keep it for himself rather than sharing it with others.

Canoeists deserve better

I’ve felt strongly about this topic for some time now, and over the last couple of weeks I’ve started trying to do something about it. Today, I came across the article in Countryfile magazine which kicked off the still ongoing argument between Griff Rhys Jones and various anglers, and felt I needed to write something to counter the vicious and selfish responses of some to that article.

My response is in the comments section of the article, or you can read it in full below.

As someone who has enjoyed canoeing since an early age I must say that I entirely agree with Griff Rhys Jones’s sentiments.

As Simon points out in his reply, there are no doubt a large number of anglers in the UK who are able to gain enjoyment from the many miles of inland rivers that we are blessed with. However, there are also a significant number of other river users – including canoeists – who today are denied access to over two thirds of those rivers.

Our rivers are a terribly undervalued resource. They are full of wildlife, fascinating places to unwind and a great educational resource for children. For others they provide a safe space for exercise and sport of all kinds, not just on the water, but also along their banks.

As Griff points out, they offer a fascinating glimpse back in time, a connection to our pre-industrial past that all too few people are able to appreciate. If we are to teach future generations about the importance of respecting our natural resources, we first need to give them access to experience those resources.

On the stretches of water I myself paddle on, I regularly come into contact with anglers and very rarely have I had any problems. A little consideration on both sides goes a long way to ensuring that we are all able to share and enjoy the use of those shared waterways.

Canoeists are not demanding unfettered access to all stretches of inland water in the country. We appreciate that in some circumstances on certain rivers it is not appropriate to use a canoe. What we seek is a reasonable code of access, laying down the terms under which access may be provided to us and to other river users. This may also define the penalties for any person who breaks those rules.

The current framework of voluntary agreements is not fit for purpose. There exists no obligation on the part of landowners to provide access, leading to one-sided arrangements whereby access is provided for one or two days of the year. This is unreasonable and not at all acceptable.

It is terribly unfair to imply that canoeists do not contribute to the upkeep of our rivers. I enjoy the right to paddle along many stretches of water including the River Thames and the 2000 miles of inland waterways maintained by British Waterways, through my membership of the British Canoe Union, who themselves have agreements with the Environment Agency and BW. Furthermore, the Environment Agency is a public body funded by the taxpayer as well as by anglers and canoeists individually.

I am terribly saddened by the selfish response of many anglers including Simon to Griff’s comments. Given the pleasure they quite rightly take from using our rivers, it is disappointing in the extreme that they wish to keep those rivers for themselves rather than sharing them with others.

As Simon states, we live in a terribly crowded country, but the solution to that is not to restrict access to the valuable natural resources which we posses to any particular group of individuals, it is to establish a common understanding and a set of rules – which may involve compromise – so that we may all enjoy their benefits.

Testing the speakers

I’ve been playing with 7digital’s wonderful MP3 store lately, and I must say I’m damn impressed with it so far.

It’s hard to believe that despite Amazon having had their own MP3 store open state-side for a year or so now, they haven’t managed to roll a similar service out on this side of the pond.

As a result, the market over here is still saturated primarily by iTunes and secondarily by the army of sellers flogging songs in Microsoft’s DRM-encumbered and closed WMA format.

7digital rocks because:

  1. Their store works in a normal web browser and doesn’t require some crappy application on my computer, unlike some I could mention
  2. The site itself is amazingly well designed and Just Works
  3. All the songs are available in 320kbps MP3 format with no DRM at all
  4. iTunes perhaps aside, the range of artists is second-to-none
  5. The prices are pretty damn good, with most tracks at 79p and albums from £5

Note to the rest of the music industry: this is how you should be encouraging music lovers to not rip off artists – by providing practical alternatives to illegally downloading material, alternatives that aren’t over-restrictive and actually treat people like adults rather than children.

Rather than wasting millions on lawyers attempting to sue unfortunate souls in Oklahoma who’ve had their wifi hijacked by people on BitTorrent (they’re unfortunate because of their poorly-set up wifi, not because they live in Oklahoma. I’ve never been there) – money that could be better spent on encouraging grass-roots efforts to help actual musicians.

Alfresco Share yn Gymraeg

Tracking string updates in HEAD is probably not the most productive way to manage a translation project, but I’m impatient.

Despite that, at this moment in time all the translatable text of Alfresco Share is now available in Welsh. Some things such as page titles don’t seem to be internationalisable yet, but I estimate some 90% of the content is fully translated.

A small patch to the Web Script Framework is needed to force the web app to use the locale-specific message bundles rather than the default ones but once that was done and I’d thrown the translated .properties files onto the classpath (they must be added into the web app itself, not anywhere else) it all started magically working.

Screenshots ahoy!

A new look

I’m like a kid with a new toy right now. The new WordPress.com blog rocks a lot, but consequently I’ve spent more time than is healthy tweaking it this evening.

So far I have a custom header image which I’m pretty happy with and the layout of the four columns is starting to work. Honestly, I don’t know how I ever coped with just two. The CSS could do with some work, but apparently it’s $15 to change that. It can wait for now.

Now I just need to start writing stuff again. We’ll see how that goes.

EA cause chaos in North London!

We all know the guys at Electronic Arts know a good WCM platform when they see one, but their latest trick over here has landed them some mixed PR – taking over a petrol station in Finsbury Park and giving away £20,000 of fuel to anyone who wants it!

According to the article on BBC News, the stunt is in order to promote their latest game Mercenaries 2, but the disruption has upset a few local residents.

Louise Marchant, from Electronic Arts, said the scenes of queuing mimicked aspects of the game.

Wicked.