Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Answer to exam problem won't be found in history

THERE are few things in politics more dangerous than a politician with principles.
As far as one can tell from down here in the street, this is not a problem very many of our present rulers are afflicted with.
Unfortunately, this means the few who do care passionately about a particular job tend to be given it and left to get on with it.
Hence the troubles of the National Health Service, which was not seriously broken until Andrew Lansley was given free rein to “fix” it.
And the fear and trembling which the mere name “Michael Gove” can set off in a whole generation of teachers.
Gove, like Lansley, is a visionary. Unfortunately, his vision appears to be distorted by tinted spectacles.
Not of the rose-tinted variety, but of the kind that creates the appearance of a “Golden Age” that never really existed.
The latest evidence of this is Gove’s newly exposed plan to scrap GCSE exams in favour of a return to something more like the old two-tier system of O-levels and CSEs.
Now, there is an element of truth in the analysis that led him to this great leap backwards.
There can be little doubt that grade inflation has occurred steadily since GCSEs were introduced in 1986 by a previous Tory minister, Kenneth Baker.
Year after year, the number of pupils gaining top grades has increased. The bunching at the top has led to the creation of more and more “star” grades and less and less distinction between the truly outstanding and the merely competent.
It has become harder and harder to believe the fiction that “improving” results were evidence of improving student performance.
Faith in the system has been steadily eroded. And it is not just “business leaders” – whose opinion on the matter is always reported as if it were the only one that counted – who object.
So yes, there is a problem.
The answer, however, is not to roll the clock back to 1983 (the year Gove sat his O-levels at Robert Gordon’s College, a 260-year-old private school in Aberdeen).
That, like so much in Gove’s thinking, is simply the politics of nostalgia.
One suspects it would really make him happy to have Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Culture Club back on Top of the Pops, Flashdance at the pictures and John Inman camping it up on Are You Being Served?
For good measure, why not restore Britain’s steel, mining and shipbuilding industries, New Romantic hairstyles and jackets with big shoulders?
All these things were current around the time the now “dumbed-down” GCSEs were being devised by another Tory visionary, Baker’s predecessor Sir Keith Joseph. A man whose own experience of education – like Gove’s, Baker’s and most of the present government – came from private schools then Oxford.
While we’re at it, why not wind back to the real heyday of the grammar schools the heart of the Conservative Party hankers for? To the days when teachers were armed with bamboo canes with which to assault pupils with impunity.
Let’s roll back agri-business to put workers back in the fields of Suffolk. And let’s have tied cottages to house them in.
Let’s turn back not to Gove’s grammar-school days but to mine, 10 years earlier.
Of course, mine was different – it was a state school. But it was supposed to be quite a good one at the time.
Few of the teachers I had for my O-levels would be able to cope in today’s schools. Certainly not the ones who turned their gowned backs on their classes and addressed their monotonous talk to the blackboards on which they scrawled the notes we were supposed to copy into our books.
I know that not every modern comprehensive is as good as Farlingaye High School, which my daughter is fortunate enough to attend. I also know that every time I visit the school I’m filled with envy.
Envy of the opportunities the students there enjoy for music, drama and sport at far high levels than were ever open to me. Envy of maths lessons that make the subject so much wider, deeper and more fun than the number-crunching I was once quite good at.
Envy, at heart, of the facilities and the teaching – though, to be fair to the 1970s, I was taught well at sixth form after moving across town from old grammar to new comprehensive.
There is a mania among modern Conservatives for describing things as “broken” – especially things, like Britain, which can’t actually break.
Britain’s schools aren’t “broken”, unless you count buildings which are no longer being properly maintained.
Education doesn’t need yet more “fixing”.
Mostly what teachers need is to be left to get on with the job.
Most of the problems stem from the obsession with “choice” and results-based league tables.
That is what has caused grade inflation and dumbing-down.
That is what has made heads more concerned about exam results than pupils’ all-round well-being.
That is what Gove inherited from New Labour. And what he appears to want more of, not less.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Hello, Barbara, please stop bothering me while I write

“HELLO, is that Mrs Semmens?”
“May I speak with Mrs Semmens, please?”
“I’m afraid there’s no one of that name here.”
“Are you Mr Semmens?”
“Then may I speak with Mrs Semmens, please?”
“No. As I told you. If you want my mother, she has a different number, but I can’t give it to you until I’ve checked with her whether she wants to speak to you.”
“Is she Aidan Semmens?”
“No. I am.”
“Then perhaps I can speak to you, Mrs Semmens… ”
Do I sound like a Mrs to you? Since you probably don’t know the answer to that directly, does the photo of me at the top of this page look like someone who would sound like a Mrs to you?
Later that same day…
“Hello, is that Mrs Semmens?” It’s a different voice this time – this one sounds like a woman – but with the same obviously Indian or Bangladeshi accent.
“No. This is Mr Semmens.”
“May I please speak to Mrs Semmens?”
“There’s no one of that name here. Can I help you?”
“This is Barbara, calling from [name of some company I’ve never heard of and have forgotten by the time the conversation’s over]. This is just a courtesy call. How are you today?”
Well, I was fine until I kept being interrupted. Your understanding of the word ‘courtesy’ – or at least the concept of courtesy held by the company [name forgotten] you have the misfortune to work for – is obviously a little different from mine.
And while I have friends from the sub-continent, and a friend called Barbara, they are definitely different people. I know of no one called Barbara – nor, despite claims made in other recent conversations, any Peter, Richard, Michael or Mary – who has that particular accent. (Though, come to think of it, I did once know a David from Calcutta… )
The proliferation of such nuisance calls is getting beyond a joke. Heaven knows how much worse it might be if our number were listed in the phonebook.
It’s almost 18 years since I left the Labour Party after getting a series of cold calls asking for money. There were other, more significant, reasons – not least the party’s alarming lurch to the right under Tony Blair – but the calls were the final straw at the time.
The charities I support don’t bother me by phone, thankfully, though others occasionally do.
Neither, less happily, do they take any notice of my requests not to keep sending me begging letters through the post. Presumably they take the view that it would be more expensive to administer the opt-out than to keep sending the letters – though I should think it must be a close call.
The mountain of junk mail that builds up on the doormat is probably much more wasteful of cash and resources than the deluge of unwanted phone calls. And both must cost a lot more than circulating spam emails, where the marginal cost of each one must be practically zero.
In every case, of course, whether begging for donations or trying to sell me something I don’t want, it’s my money they’re after. And, frankly, they can’t have it.
But it’s the phone calls that really get my goat.
Junk mail is easily dropped straight in the recycling bin. And while the spam filter is a long way short of foolproof – the biggest danger being messages you would have wanted that get flushed away unseen – it doesn’t demand your attention as insistently as a ringing phone.
One friend of mine has instructed her children to respond to cold calls by saying, “Hang on, I’ll just get my mum”, then leaving the phone lying on the table while they go off and do something else.
Another is routinely and loudly foul-mouthed to cold-callers. That seems unnecessarily unkind to the callers themselves, who are, after all, only doing their job. And not, one imagines, a job they would choose if there were anything better available.
This does not excuse the caller who was startlingly rude the other day to my sister when she declined to fork out a substantial sum for the privilege of being removed from the offending firm’s database. Which sounds to me like a clear case of attempted extortion, and therefore illegal. In this country, anyway, which is probably not where the call was made from, or the database held.
“Hello, is that Mr Semmens? This is Tracey from [some other company]. Just a courtesy call... ”
“Hang on, Tracey, it’s really nice to speak to you but I’ve got to finish a column I’m writing for the Ipswich Star. So why don’t you just stop wasting my time and yours? Goodbye.”
Meanwhile, a short distance across town, my mother, the real Mrs Semmens, keeps getting calls demanding that she be Mrs Harrison…

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Normandy landings

JOHN STEELE, son of a Mississippi riverboat captain, was 31 and the oldest member of his paratroop company on June 6, 1944. Many of the rest were in their teens. Steele was the company barber.
There was a lot going on that day. But Steele’s part in it remains very much known in the small Normandy town of Sainte-Mère-Église.
The town itself, about the size of Grundisburgh, owes its place in history to that same momentous day – D-Day. Lying just inland of the most northerly of the famous “Normandy beaches” along which the Allies invaded German-occupied France, it was the first town in Europe to be liberated from the Nazis.
It was not an entirely glorious affair, however.
While more than 200,000 troops landed on the beaches, and naval guns pounded the German defences from the Channel, Steele’s company – F Company of the US 82nd Airborne Division – was supposed to be dropped by glider on the main road beyond the town.
Two plane-loads of parachutists, however, were dropped by accident right in the town square itself – where, also by accident, a house had been set alight by a stray incendiary bomb.
The Germans in the town were easily able to see the descending parachutists by its light. Easy targets, 12 of them were killed, wounded or captured as they landed.
Steele, hit in the ankle by a piece of shrapnel, battled desperately to avoid landing in the flaming building itself. In so doing, he hit the steeple of the church, where his parachute became entangled, leaving him dangling from the tower.
As he tried to cut himself free, he dropped his knife. So there he hung, for two hours, unable to do anything but watch the carnage below. Eventually the temporarily victorious Germans cut him down and took him prisoner.
Two days later, as the fighting went on, he was able to escape and rejoin his company.
Today, somewhat surreally, a lifesize effigy of a paratrooper dangles from a parachute on the church tower in Steele’s memory. Where the burning house was there is now a rather fine museum commemorating the parachute regiment and the battle.
Among the collected war memorabilia – much of which resembles similar collections housed in small museums across Suffolk – one of the most poignant items is a simple handwritten letter.
It is from one of the three German soldiers who were stationed on the church tower that night. It tells how he might have shot Steele had he not thought he was dead already.
And it recounts how one of his two comrades was shot dead. And that he never saw the other again until 20 years later at a reunion in Sainte-Mère-Église, where Steele also returned and was much feted by the townspeople.
According to Wikipedia, Sainte-Mère-Église was “significantly involved” in the Hundred Years War of the 14th and 15th centuries and the Wars of Religion in the 16th. But it is the events of D-Day and the days immediately following that now dominates everything in the town. It is as if nothing had happened there before, and very little since except commemoration.
You might think there was nothing terribly significant about a 68th anniversary, yet Sainte-Mère-Église was full last week – largely of American and British visitors, and French people weirdly clad in American pseudo-military attire.
I was there by chance, not design, but I can only assume that the fancy-dress parade takes place every June.
And not just in Sainte-Mère-Église but also on the beaches and at the nearby German batteries at Azeville and Crisbeq.
Now partially restored as rather sombre but absorbing museums, the batteries are colossal concrete constructions from which the Germans’ big guns attempted to fight off the invading Allies.
Here too are extraordinary poignancies. While just a few miles away Steele dangled, a shell from a US warship missed a German canon by inches, burst through a metre-thick reinforced concrete wall into a room full of soldiers, bounced and exited through another wall as thick – and all without exploding.
The shockwave of its passing instantly killed all 15 Germans in the room, though. And the holes in both walls are there to be marvelled at still.
All these years later, with fewer and fewer of the participants to keep the direct memory alive – John Steele died of cancer in 1969 – the war still exerts a fascination. Its sheer scale remains overwhelming, the enormity of what the Nazis did and tried to do still shocking.
But it is the accretion of details that really gives pause.
Steele was one man among millions. His extraordinary story one among millions.
The ordinary Germans – men probably not much unlike John Steele, or you, or me – wiped out by that one non-exploding shell were 15 among millions. Each might have had a story to tell.
As might each of the Russian prisoners whose under-fed muscle-power largely built those great concrete gun-emplacements.
Or each of the common soldiers – Norman and English – whose deaths in the Battle of Hastings are graphically commemorated on the Bayeux Tapestry, which I also saw and marvelled at last week.
One invasion of England from Normandy, one of Normandy from England, nearly 900 years apart. Both hugely significant historically. And in a rather gruesome way not all that different.