Tom Bennett

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Monthly Archives: November 2010

The Pursuit of Happiness: Jeremy Bentham, David Cameron and the Principle of Utility

Spent a fascinating afternoon at the UCL on Friday, taking a Platonically Ideal group of A2 students to take part in the Transcribe Bentham project. Jeremy Bentham was a 19th century utilitarian philosopher and reformer who famously requested in his will that his cadaver be dissected, reassembled, stuffed with straw, and dressed for display. This charming paperweight (called the Auto-Icon) is a handsome addition to the foyer of any metropolitan University, and surely the perfect gift for any lonely academic this Christmas; it was also an ideal focal point for a Philosophy trip, which at the best of times proves problematic. You tell me how I organise a fun day out based on Wittgenstein’s Tractatus.

Bentham wrote 60,000 papers, but only 20,000 of them have been transcribed and studied properly, so it’s a Wiki-style project to crowd-source labour, an enormous open contribution that will eventually digitise every nuance of thought the old pleasure-seeker scribbled. I can’t recommend it highly enough for any teacher with RS or Philosophy students doing Ethics, and we even had the pleasure of a short lecture from Philip Schofield (no, not that one, you cultural illiterate. This one). Dr Valerie Wallace, the charming coordinator of the project showed us around the campus (including visiting Bentham, sitting imperially over the sit-ins in the University rooms dedicated to his name, and now used as meeting rooms- I’m sure his chest would have swelled with pride, had he still a thoracic cavity with which to do so- which was the sweetened pill before an hour of transcription itself. I have to say, it was a lot more fun than I anticipated, and it concerns me in retrospect how much I enjoyed attempting to read 200 year old handwriting and guess which word Jeremy was searching for. The temptation to transcribe the words ‘X-Factor’ and ‘crowd-sourcing’ was, fortunately, resistible.

Bentham’s focus was Utilitarianism, a moral philosophy that revolves around the proposition that we all seek pleasure, and therefore pleasure is the commonly agreed good that we all seek; therefore we can distinguish moral acts from non-moral acts by the amount which they maximise pleasure. Or more simply, the good is that which produces the most pleasure.

Why is this relevant to anyone other than unemployable philosophy nerds like myself? Because David Cameron has been sticking his size 14 Burberry Wellies into a debate that centres on exactly this proposition: that happiness is something that should be measured. Of course, such a project presumes that happiness can in any way be measured, and it’s here that Bentham has a lot to say- well, a lot more than PremierBot DavCam. He realised that in order for us to assess whether an action entails more pleasure than another alternative action, we need to be able to quantify happiness in some way. But how do you approach that problem?

His answer was what he called the Hedonic Calculus: a series of considerations that would enable us to quantify and thereby compare pleasure, despite its apparent intrinsically relative nature. The ins and outs of the calculus are beyond the remit of my trivial output, but in summary he asked us to consider the pleasure’s intensity, duration, remoteness, fecundity (my favourite, incidentally) and other factors, in order to establish how we should esteem it.

It sounds great, and paying him his dues, it was a massive step in ethics; but the sticking point remains- how do we quantify what will always be an essentially interior experience? If I give ‘eating a toffee apple’ a 3 out of 10 on my pleasure scale, how does that compare to your three out of ten (which, for all I know, might involve launching a fire extinguisher off the top of Millbank Tower)? It may be easy to compare massively dissimilar pleasures – I can say that winning the lottery is ‘greater’ than eating an ice cream- but beyond that, we are back in the realms of licking our fingers, holding them into the wind, and saying ‘About that much’.

I understand that several million pounds are to be invested in DavCam’s ‘Happy-o-meter’ (sorry, Wellbeing Index). And I think we can all congratulate him on money well spent in these times when a man can barely employ a retinue of photographers and stylists at public expense without enduring the brickbats of an ungrateful electorate which just doesn’t understand how important it is for a millionaire to have the right width of pinstripe when he meets the Japanese Ambassador.

It’s not that I don’t applaud any attempt to dislocate the contemporary dogma that money and happiness are inextricably, necessarily connected- Siddharta Gottama had that much right- but this predictably Pound stretcher way of sticking a pin into how we’re all feeling so that we can then graph, track, crunch and pontificate the ‘results’ is so philosophically flawed as to produce little ripples of nausea in my duodenum just thinking about it. What kind of data does this scheme seek to produce? What correlation can be drawn between patterns (or lack thereof) that might ensue? If numbers fall, does that suggest that we’re all less happy? How can an electorate be relied upon to remember how happy they were feeling five years previously, or will they be forced to rely on an imagined perception of how happy they were? Of course they will. Of course they will.

‘On a scale of one to ten, how deep is your love?’ Or perhaps even better, ‘On a scale of one to ten, how much sunlight can be extracted from a cucumber?’

On a scale of one to ten, my visit to Transcribe Bentham was a 7; piling into Waterstone‘s basement Costa afterwards and hiding from the cold with a Hot Chocolate drove that up to a 7.5. David Cameron’s latest agenda grabbing piece of attention whoring?

Well, I’ll give that a 2. Your thoughts, Cheryl?

Half way through the white paper. Losing the will to live…Especially with this charmer girning down from the inside cover. It’s the kind of smile that says, ‘I am a warm and approachable person. Didn’t your brother go to Fettes?’

Saudi Arabian Government ‘very concerned’ about British schools

An investigation by the Saudi Arabian Panorama has spotlighted concerns about the levels of fundamentalism and racial intolerance in British schools based in mainly English areas of busy multicultural areas like Riyadh.

‘We’re worried,’ said Faisal, an investigator for the program. ‘We have evidence that many of these schools have high levels of unchecked disrespect, swearing, vandalism and general rudeness. In some cases, we are led to believe that these children, rather than being excluded, are kept in the classroom, where they are free to run riot. And teachers are punished for children misbehaving, by a process the Europeans call ‘Ahf-sted’. It is a very terrible and medieval torture, with teachers having their pride cut off.’

But it doesn’t end with that. ‘It gets worse,’ continued Faisal, ‘These schools are guilty of the ugliest intolerances; they claim to value every child, but the reality is an evil prejudice against well-behaved children who work hard; they are punished by not having any targeted interventions available to them. Teachers are terrified of the worst children because they know that they will be on the next interview panel they go for. Truly, these are signs of an extremist and fundamental culture that has no place in our current modern age.’

The Saudi education minister, Salman Gove, vowed last night to ban any books that contain such medieval ideas as ‘SEAL‘ and ‘Learning Styles‘. ‘Children shouldn’t be exposed to lazy, idiotic ideas like this,’ he said. ‘And the British Curriculum is full of loathsome prejudices, asking children to list all the things that are wonderful about Citizenship. This is plainly brainwashing.’

Tony Blair is 65.

Exclusions expelled: private school alumnus tells state schools, ‘Don’t exclude bad children’.

Well, it had to happen. Just as I was beginning to wonder who had stolen Michael Gove and replaced him with a human being, I am simultaneously reassured and appalled to see that business is proceeding as normal. In a story in the Daily Telegraph, it’s reported that Gove has decided that, in future any school that excludes a pupil will be forced to pay the costs towards that child’s education in the school they move on to after exclusion. AND, the grades that the child obtains in their new school will count for the school which excluded in the last place. Which given the demographic of the excluded, doesn’t normally mean A*s.

I am gnashing my teeth and clawing at the sockets of my eyes over this. This is, without a doubt, the single most anti-education policy that I have heard in the last five years. At least until now it has been merely difficult to exclude; schools have been deterred from excluding by the threat of an unfavourable Ofsted inspection, on the already witless assumption that a school that excludes pupils is somehow responsible for the behaviour of that pupil. But the result of these new measures will mean one thing only: schools just won’t exclude.

And what will happen as a result of that? Well, for a start, short term, internal exclusions and fixed term external exclusions will rocket. But because the pupil isn’t gone for good, they, like every good zombie, will return from the dead to haunt the corridors, and terrorise the pupils, classrooms and teachers that they were exorcised from. Over and over again, in a Hellish infinite regress of bad behaviour.

That’s bad enough. The knock on effect? Classrooms will be populated by students who have been proven to be beyond the capacity of mainstream education to handle, many of whom are there simply to disrupt as much as possible. Given that we are bending over backwards to teach them that their actions have no consequence, I imagine they won’t be mending their behaviour any time soon. The effect this has on a class is awful to see; it was one of the first things I noticed in education when I trained as a teacher. It only takes one or two mentalists to ruin the finest lesson; and once a few of them get going, and get away with it, the rest of the class are tempted into piracy as well. It’s a trickle effect that can ruin the education of millions.

Permanent exclusions aren’t pretty, but they need to exist, for the simple reasons that prisons need to exist in society; there needs to be an ultimate sanction to both deter and remove the very worst. Sure, the carousel of schools that these students go through isn’t perfect either, but the best solution was taken away from us: special schools, where these pupils can get the help and support they need, and not simply penning them into classrooms where they can’t cope, and neither can the teacher.

Of course, Gove’s scheme is only piloting right now, which means its being tested out in a few selected schools. But I can almost guarantee that the evidence has already been decided in favour of the project. Why? Because it is inevitable that introducing this scheme into any school ecosystem or cluster will result in a decline in the number of schools excluding. Which, in the current climate of data-obsession, will mean that on a nice coloured bar chart, this will look like it has the effect of ‘forcing schools to face up to bad behaviour’ and to ‘really work with the pupil to reduce bad behaviour.’ Which is guano, incidentally. All it will mean is that schools will permanently exclude less, and another generation of school children will be condemned to sit in sink lessons as one or two egoists parade their unattractive characters around the room for years on end, and watch as their education goes down the plughole.

Well done, Michael. An excellent weekend’ s work.

For God’s sake, it’s even being touted as ‘A clampdown on school exclusions,’ as if that was the problem, and not the behaviour that leads to the exclusions. To paraphrase the artist formerly known as Banksy, ‘That’s like going to a restaurant because you’re looking forward to the sh*t you’re going to have afterwards.’

So far this is a pilot project, as part of a white paper that is being drawn up as I froth and rage. Which means it’s far from a certainty yet. Great Krypton, I hope I’m wrong about this. You would almost think that no one in the Ministry of Silly Lessons has ever been outside of a private school.

Oh, wait a minute. They haven’t.

Student Voice: excuse me- do you mind if I teach you?

Have you heard the latest? Axe-murderers are being asked to contribute to the length and severity of the sentences that the court hands out to them. Why not? They’re affected by the decision; the outcome of the process clearly matters a great deal to them personally, and in that light, we may as well consider them to be stakeholders. So why shouldn’t they be asked their opinions?

We haven’t got there- yet. As far as I am aware, axe murderers have their sentences handed out to them with gay abandon as usual by our octogenarian philosopher-king judiciary, with no reference to the wishes of the convicted. I strongly suspect that nobody is marching on Whitehall to rectify this unjust disempowerment of the axe-murderer community.

Less happily, this exact level of knuckle-headedness has crept into schools like rising damp. It’s called Student Voice. Perhaps you’ve met? If you have, you may, like me, be rubbing your eyes and clicking your red shoes together like Dorothy having a panic attack, and hoping that it’s all a bad dream. Student Voice wears many faces in education, but usually manifests itself in small children popping up in arenas that previously seemed the preserve of the over-five-foot-club.

Some schools even have them on interview panels for applicants. Stop and think about that for a minute: children evaluating adults for their suitability to a professional post. If I ever- ever- turned up for an interview and some oleaginous year 9 was perched on top of a pillow next to the headmaster, I’d put my hat back on and walk straight out, saying, “Sorry, there must have been some kind of mistake,” possibly setting the fire alarm off as I left. Sorry, but we have degrees, don’t we? Perhaps a postgraduate qualification? Possibly even a few years working in the profession? Certainly, every applicant has to be an adult, which must count for something….except that it doesn’t. The assumption that a child has a rational, unbiased opinion that could possibly be of credible interrogative ability must rank amongst the most offensively moronic decisions that have ever been made.

Some schools even have students observing teachers. You heard me: classroom observations. Of teachers. Where, pray, does the child get the experience, impartiality and wisdom to possibly critique a teacher on their performance? You would think that anyone could teach; that everyone can have a punt at criticising it because, well, we’ve all been in a classroom before. Right?

Wrong. I’ve been in a dentist’s chair many times, due to my dentally challenged West of Scotland upbringing, where I brushed my teeth with Nutella. But that doesn’t give me a bat’s wing of seniority or credibility or evaluative ability; I would have absolutely no idea what I was looking at. It might seem like it; but that’s not the same as knowing if they’re doing anything wrong, or more importantly, what they’re doing right. I might, at a push be able to say, “Gosh, that looks a bit nippy, poor chap,” but would that mean I could say the operation should stop. “It was hurting,” I would say. “That dentist was terrible.”

That’s the problem; because everyone has been in a classroom, everyone thinks they have a considered opinion. They don’t. Teaching is a hard, complex job- perhaps easy to do badly, but hard to do well. Learning the necessary content takes years, as does becoming conscious of the skills associated with manipulating that content. And teaching is much more than just delivery of a subject: it’s a project of enabling the flourishing of maturity and practical wisdom that we associate with adulthood. We’re role models, in loco parentis guides and while I’m on about it, lion tamers too, herding our impetuous young charges along paths that they themselves do not yet perceive. That’s the job, and it’s why I love it. But easy it isn’t. The assumption that anyone can stick their oar into the secret garden of education is the latest strategy to suck the blood of professionalism from our sector like vampires. The assumption that students should have the power to tell us how to teach, what to teach, whom to hire, what to have on the curriculum, what a school should be built like, is frightening- and repulsive.

What lies at the core of this problem is that a key axiom is being ignored: adult teachers know more than student children. I’m preaching this for as long as my lungs will hold out. If anyone wants to step up to me on this one then just let me take my glasses off and I’ll see you outside the gates at four. Children start off in a non-rational state: I call it ‘being an embryo’. Rational thought isn’t possible. Then they move onto irrationality in infancy, where they are beginning to learn how the world works. The hope is that, as they grow up, this irrationality is replaced with incrementally improved levels of reason and reflection. Who helps them get there? We do. Adults. We’re the example we made earlier.

But children are intrinsically poor judges of their own development. If I asked a bunch of year threes what they wanted to do today, would they say Maths, or Harry Potter? Unless your children are precocious to the point of nausea, I suggest that the latter box would be ticked every time. Broccoli or Big Macs? Ditto. Children are instinctive egoists, making short term decisions based on immediate gratification and perceived discomfort. Reason is a long way away from their internal discourse, in varying levels according to the child. And that’s because our job is to coax the development of reason, creativity and any other aspect of their intellectual flourishing we can achieve. What it doesn’t mean is that we trust their cognitive capacity about things that they cannot grasp.

When I tell new classes what the rules are, do you think I discuss it with them? That’s a rhetorical question, incidentally. I’m an adult, and a teacher. I know what the rules need to be in order for them to learn, and in order for that to happen, they need a safe, secure learning space where order reigns. The day I let the kids write the rules is the day I ask Ray Charles if my socks match. I don’t waste a minute waiting for them to ponder, rub their beardless little chins and say, “Yes, we agree. Carry on, Mr Bennett.” To Hell with that.

This isn’t child hating, any more than student voice is pro-child. In fact, allowing student voice to infect and rot school management decisions that should by rights be left to the grown-ups actually does more harm to children than anything else, because it allows their education to be put in the hands of the people worst placed to evaluate and reflect upon it: the children themselves. They’re not consumers making carefully considered decisions about their future long-term best interests; they’re students, and students are often selfish, guided by egocentric desires, whims, peer pressure and perceived preferences. What they are often extremely bad at is prioritising long term needs over short term desires. That’s the nature of humanity. Adults are bad at it too, but kids are worse. That’s the order of things. It’s why we don’t put kids into Parliament, Law Courts, or operating theatres; because we intuitively appreciate that wisdom, experience and nous are required to execute these activities properly. I don’t see a huge rush to put ten year-olds into surgical gowns and give them a scalpel and a set of forceps. Yet.

And what is the perceived outcome of all these lovely student voices? Should schools be forced to act upon it? Are student observations to be graded and counted towards a teacher’s professional development portfolio, or worse, towards a folder of evidence to support pay progression? Should interviewees try to ingratiate themselves to children at the interview panel? Perhaps they should drop references to Tinchy Strider or Pixie Lott to generate synergy.

It amazes me that more people don’t rebel against this revolting inversion of natural roles and hierarchy that has survived thousands of years of civilisation. Only an affluent culture could even begin to consider that we can survive in a world where children are treated as equal shareholders in the decisions that affect the welfare of the community.

So where did it come from? Well, as usual, I point an accusing finger at the DfE, which is responsible for this palpable guff. The statutory guidance (DfES, 2004) requires headteachers, governors and local education authorities to ‘give children and young people a say.’

More recently the Children Act 2004 has legislated that local authorities must give children and young people a say in the development of the statutory children and young people’s plans. The new self-evaluation framework for schools requires schools to evaluate how they gather the views of children and young people and how they take action on these views.

(Cruddas, 2006)

And that, fellow professionals and interested parties, is the nub of it. Schools are required to show that they listen to this nebulously defined entity called the Student Voice (begging questions: whose voice? Which students are representative?) and worse, that they have to show how they acted upon that voice. It’s yet another example of how the inspection system bullies schools into taking on onerous, odorous tasks that not only replace useful activities (such as teaching) but also impede them.

The lunatics have taken over the asylum, truly. I have no problem with students having a voice, but the problem is that I already know most of what they’re going to say. Comments like, ‘His lesson is a bit boring’ are utterly meaningless to me. Some lessons are boring; sorry, but that’s part of education- not every lesson has Ker-Plunk! and Conga Lines. Sure, I’m interested if there’s a serious issue- an abusive teacher, or one who obviously fails to teach at all- but there are channels for those kind of complaints, properly communicated through parents to the school.

Student Voice is starting to become a shout. And as professionals, we need to put a sock in it before we can’t hear ourselves teach.

Nights in White City: How I learned to love the Beeb

Television is an invention that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your home. ~David Frost

And today, Matthew, it was my turn. If you snorted Cheerios through your nose, I can only advise you to upgrade to a less lubricious brand of cereal. I spent another three minutes in Tellyland today, as a guest of Auntie Beeb’s hospitality, which for me is a novel enough experience to be worth talking about, although to the magic elves behind the curtain, I’m sure it’s as commonplace as custard.

They sure move fast in Tellyland: a phone call on Friday for a slot on Monday (somehow I’ve sneaked onto a last resort Rentagob Rolodex under ‘S’ for schools, or ‘O’ for opinionated), and the machine sparked into life. And it’s slick, like the Vatican. When they say ‘the taxi will be outside the front door at 6:20’, then Shazam– there it is at 6.15, accompanied by a text telling you what car and where. The cars are agreeable without being ostentatious, as if to say, you are important, but we are not profligates. The drivers are conversational without ever actually tipping over into intrusively racist or aggressive. The cab is deodorised but without the Alpine Forest Little Tree dangling from the rear mirror. And so on.

BBC White City is as familiar as every episode of Blue Peter, like a film set of Children in Need; it is, to be honest, a utilitarian and oppressive looking structure, no doubt much loved by the kind of architects who swoon over post-modernism and high rises, but wouldn’t actually live in one. Stalin would feel affection; Hitler would find the brickwork shabby. But it is what it is, and what it is, is an icon. And walking into an icon is always exciting. Ask Ray Charles at the Oscars.

The foyer was unmanned; in fact the whole building is surprisingly empty at 7.30 in the morning; perhaps I was expecting Terry Wogan delivering the milk, and Brucie scarecrowing through the corridors. At the desk I saw a box of poppies, which I had worried about in the cab: Poppy or No Poppy? Being of a generation that never learned its manners, I couldn’t tell if Remembrance Sunday marked the beginning or end to the season. What a minefield. So I grabbed what I assumed was a complimentary memorial flower, and left a guilty quid in the box.

Ted showed me around. I have to say, everyone there at that time was charming; exceptionally so; charming in an early morning way that I have never experienced, but given that my sole experience of early shifts has been opening restaurants, I expect that bin men, fishmongers and alcoholics aren’t a fair comparison. The Green Room (which is so tiny as to suggest that I had swallowed a tart with the words ‘Eat Me’ hand piped in icing on it) was, licence hawks, Spartan but agreeable; coffees and pastries, rather than the Champagne Trolleys that Clive James memoirs had led me to believe. There were a succession of friendly, youthful looking people dressed in shabby-chic who all looked enthusiastic, intelligent and glad to see you. It must have been their superpower.

After the greetings and the thanks, they sit you down (where I met my other participants, a lovely woman campaigning for more anti-bullying legislation), and we watched people from the Plasma Screen TV on the wall magically turn into real people as they walked off the set and back into the room. Honestly; it’s like watching a cartoon come alive, and you find yourself doing the double take that famous people presumably get all the time. Then I was taken into make-up, which for a man is an uncomfortable experience at the best of times and frankly, I can’t even imagine what that time would look like. Let’s say it’s odd to be powdered and brushed, and simply understand that without it, I would give the cadaverous appearance of Dot Cotton and my flesh would glow with Celtic waxiness.

Ten minuets before show time, I nipped off to the loo. Staring at the porcelain wall, a manly whole urinal away from the only other user, a well known face from the box stepped in, and placed himself between me and Barrabas. ‘It’s busy in here!’ he said, in a way that would have brought him nothing but pain in a Glaswegian pissoir. Telly folk! ‘Perhaps we should form a Barbershop Quartet,’ I said, trying to respond in kind. Fortunately it got a Mexican chuckle that I believe is rare in such situations.

Then we were led through to the studio. Have you ever seen the set of the Today show, or Tonight with Jay Leno, that kind of thing? Well it’s nothing like that. This is the British version. There’s about five people including the presenters and the sofa, and if there is a producer somewhere holding one finger to his ear and saying, ‘Camera five go to the profile in six…five…four…’ then I have yet to see him. This is the austerity Beeb; this is the Beeb facing off to a belligerent coalition of Murdoch-fanciers. The lining might be Damascan silk and ermine, but the top cloth is most definitely Yorkshire cotton.

Just as I sat down and the floor manager carefully threaded a mike onto me, she looked down at my lapel: ‘Bill and Sian aren’t wearing poppies. You can of course do what you like, ‘ she whispered, ‘But they’re not wearing one.’

I took mine off, lancing my thumb seconds before the camera cut to us.

Almost alone in the studio, it felt like we were having a chat in someone’s front room (were that someone Chris Tarrant, or Philip Schofield). The minimalism was a blessing, because it clears all nerves. Bill and Sian are, giving them both their due, flawless. It makes me realise that ‘broadcaster’ is actually a professional job, rather than just something that ex-Big Brother contestants claim to be once they’ve done a few live spots down the Inferno (Clapham North’s premier nightspot). If you saw it, then you’ll know it was over in a flash; we got bumped later and shorter because some Somalian pirates decided to release two hostages on the same morning I was on the sofa, rather selfishly I thought, but then as pirates I suppose they know no decorum or sense of occasion.

Two minutes after the interview, I’m stepping into a taxi and it’s all over. The amount of thought and planning that goes into that short slot was boggling; some people put less into planning a wedding. And as I pulled off, I noticed something tucked away in a corner of the forecourt that warmed my heart in all four chambers: a police box. An old fashioned blue police box. This was the BBC, you see. A seven year old child inside me hooped and whooped as we drove away.

Just because your voice reaches halfway around the world doesn’t mean you are wiser than when it reached only to the end of the bar. ~Edward R. Murrow

Sofa-surfing Update

I’ll be on at 8:20am tomorrow, not 7:40. Practically a long lie in, then…