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The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters: Mock outrage causes outrage

I am outraged. I’m fuming. How can people be so insensitive? They should be ashamed of themselves.

In fact, I’m so outraged, I think I might be able to wring a decent article out of it. The source of today’s horror is the news, reported in the Telegraph, and no doubt coming soon to a media outlet near you, is the news that in the recent AQA Religious Studies exam, they had the temerity to ask this question:

‘Why are some people prejudiced against Jews?’

The Jewish Chronicle led with this; Michael Gove jumped in with his size 12s. Lou Mensch hit Twitter like it was being rationed by Francis Maude.

Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, branded the move “insensitive”.

He told The Jewish Chronicle: “To suggest that anti-Semitism can ever be explained, rather than condemned, is insensitive and, frankly, bizarre. AQA needs to explain how and why this question was included in an exam paper.” 

From this link

I had to rub my eyes a few times to make sure I was reading that right. We can’t question why prejudice occurs? We can’t try to understand the frankly obnoxious reasons that people might discriminate against any segment of the population? We can’t try to unpick the stitches in racism, anti-Semitism, or hate-thought?

How utterly, utterly, endlessly, bottomlessly appalling. Prejudice needs to be challenged; it needs to be understood; its brittle bones broken. The fog of discrimination grows darker in the shadows. It doesn’t emerge, like a miasma, from nothing. It is a primordial soup of ignorance, half-truths, fear, cruelty and imagined injustice. Suggesting that the only appropriate reaction is to condemn it, does the reverse; it condemns us. I have been to Auschwitz several times; after the abysmal anti-life that this place represents, many were inspired to say, ‘Never again.’

Well nothing is dispelled by treating it as something transcendent, mystical and unintelligible. You analyse and confront; you do not retreat into dogma and simplifications. The German people are not inherently evil, nor were the people of Rwanda, Serbia, or any other ghastly gardens of genocide and intolerance. Hate is not defeated by ignoring it, or pretending it arises ex nihilo, like a genie. Understanding it takes us a step towards dispelling it. Refusing to even question its origins is a step towards ensuring that it perpetuates like gangrene in the wounds of the world.

This was a valid question, and always will be. I teach RS, and I have always- and will always- expect my students to understand why humans can hate each other. AQA understood this when they set the question; good RS teachers understand it when they teach and discuss it. Rentagobs, manufacturing outrage are the enemies of wisdom. This question was well-worded, and anyone free from a fetish for headlines and populism can understand that this question, in this context, wasn’t just permissible, but vital; urgent.

Sometimes I feel that we are doomed to repeat our mistakes. Sometimes, as someone who tries to help students understand why reason sometimes dislocates in favour of race-hate, I feel so weak in the face of the cyclical nature of ignorance and ugly sentiment. The faux, proxy offended play to the sentiments of the bigoted when they classify all explorations of racism as racist.

Humanity deserves better than this. Our children deserve better than this.

‘Stop doing what we told you to do,’ says Ofsted: Leaked Maths paper causes outrage.

NEWS: Recent comments by Ofsted that the maths exam is ‘too easy’ has been greeted with cries of ‘but that’s what you f*cking asked us to do’ by most major stakeholders in England and Wales. Additionally, the DfE rottweiler has accused schools of teaching to the exam and gaming the A*-C figures by entering candidates too early. Tired, confused teachers have responded with various degrees of, ‘But….we only get paid if the results constantly increase like an enormous soufflé predicated on infinite expansion. Help, we don’t understand what you want.’

‘Yes, said one maths teacher. Tell us what you want. We’ll do it. Please don’t hurt us. Take my last testicle. I don’t need it any more.’

The Daily Guru has received an advance copy of this year’s GCSE exam, criticised by many as being too obsessed with relevance and engagement with the children’s context than assessing functional maths skills. See for yourself:

1 Hour 30 mins
Or as long as you fancy


Aspirational social class:

Attempt all questions

1. If Kelis’s milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, and assuming the combined mass of all the boys is equivalent to 1.13 X 10^5 kg and the length of the yard is exactly three times the width of the yard in a right angled rectangle, then calculate:

a) How much would you have to charge?
b) Is it > yours?

2. If the value of Billy Jean  ≠ my lover, then does n tend to 1 where n is equivalent to just a girl?

3. In the shape to the left, is the area of the red triangle closest in value to:

a) It takes a nation of millions
b) Nuthin’ but a G thang
c) 50 cent

4. Baby got back. Is Sir Mix-a-Lot:

a) Long
b) Strong
c) Down to get some friction on?

5. ‘My anaconda don’t want ________ unless you got buns, hun.’ Is the missing value:

a) None
b) Crunk
c) Sir Michael Wilshaw

6. Lady Gaga has lost her telephone. How bad IS her romance, to the nearest three places?

a) Ra ra, ah ah ah
b) Roma, ro ro ma
c) Ga ga ooh lala

 7. What’s six inches and goes in One Direction?

8. Simon Cowell, the legendary lady-killer and playboy is having a party where Sinitta, Cheryl Cole, and Amanda Holden will be strangling kittens for his amusement in order to gain the Dark Lord’s favour. You have been invited. Calculate 

a) how far you would have to jump in  order to be assured of a quick death. 
b) the diameter of Sinitta’s Adam’s Apple.

9. Calculate the X-Factor. 

10. Will-I-am is twice as dope as Jessie J, who is a sixteenth as dope as Tom Jones. Danny = a dope. What is the smallest number of duets Tom Jones must have performed with Elvis before Danny gets a kick in the tits?

11. Extension:  Sean Paul wants to get busy. Using the following terms, does he want to get busy with Miss Jodi or Miss Rebecca, or all of them at once in an unhygienic daisy chain of wicked, libidinous foam?

Girl get busy, just shake that booty non-stop
When the beat drops
Just keep swinging it
Get jiggy
Get crunked up
Percolate anything you want to call it
Oscillate you hip and don’t take pity
Me want fi see you get live upon the riddim when me ride

Show your workings. No credit will be given for unjustified answers.

End of Paper

Please indicate your preferred grade here (note: candidates who leave this blank will only receive a C):

British Children ‘bad losers’, claims survey by people who want to sell you something.

‘Leave me! Save yourself!’

An article on today’s BBC Education portal highlights the no doubt vertiginous decline in the average school child’s ability to lose gracefully or, indeed, to win gracefully. I wonder how they came up with a sufficiently large data set to arrive at this conclusion, given that school sports days appear to have gone the way of the Daily Sport and vanished from most school’s year planner, on the basis that the very rumour of competition will have less physically able children curled up in a foetal ball of misery and self-loathing akin to a diabetic fit.

But given that they actually found enough children who were allowed to actually compete with one another, the findings seem, on the surface, to be a cause for concern.

‘Two-thirds of parents of eight to 16-year-olds said their children reacted badly when they lost, the poll found.
A further two-thirds of respondents said parents behaved badly when watching children’s matches.
Some 1,008 parents and 1,007 children aged eight to 16 were questioned for the survey by Opinion Matters.’

How awful. And, I’m sure, quite true, quite true. Still, it always gets my whiskers twitching when I see survey findings being posted slavishly as headlines, despite the cowardy-custard get-out of putting it in between two lazy apostrophes to indicate a possible lack of veracity. Try ”David Cameron wears tights,’ an unnamed source claimed last night.’ The writer gets the neon headline, the reader gets mauled by a grisly, unforgettable image, and all is well, except for the reader’s orientation to any actual truth claims. So, how firm is this piece of educational news?

‘After you.’ ‘No, after you.’

Well, it’s been conducted by Opinion Matters. Who they? Well, if you’re Marks and Spencers, or Vitabiotics (‘where nature meets science!’) you’ll know all about them. They’re an ‘independent’ market research company (what does independent even mean in this kind of context? It seems to mean, ‘will work for money’) who, as their website proudly says, ‘make it our priority to aid our clients to generate headlines and create coverage that highlights and reinforces their branding and key messages in media.’ In other words, they conduct research that will get their clients into the press. You’ll have seen this kind of thing many, many times before- have a look at the Vitabiotic link above, where they advise the client that a survey or two- a bit of science- will get lazy journalists writing about the product, even though the survey in question relies on ‘perceptions’ and subjective opinions. So they’re used to dealing with sensitive subjects with impartiality and rigour. So far, so good.  Have a look at the website. How do they sleep? (As Don Draper would say: ‘On a bed of money.’)

And who commissioned the research from these paragons of objective investigation and veracity? Surely not the Marylebone Cricket Club and the Cricket Foundation? It certainly was. One might reasonably ask why such caryatid columns of sportsmanship and integrity are interested in finding out how badly Britain’s youth react to winning and losing. Perhaps they’re just curious.
 Or perhaps not. As we discover buried away in the legendary bowels of the article (which you get a chocolate biscuit if you’re still reading by that point) is the golden nugget that these august bodies have recently started ‘offering sportsmanship lessons to state schools’. So, no financial or commercial interest in this research at all. Still, at least the researchers were independent. Somehow.

The data says ______.

So there we have it: a story based on research commissioned by bodies who have a vested interest in the findings, conducted by people who are delighted to make sure that the findings are found, and published uncritically as fact by a public body funded by the license fee. The sad thing is that I probably have a lot of love for the Cricket Foundation. (I mean, it’s the Cricket Foundation, for God’s sake.) And the idea that children should be more sporting. And the idea that engaging kids with good role models in sport might be a good idea. It’s just as charmless as Liberace to see it all stirred into the same cauldron, sold as fact, and served up as news. I think we all deserve a bit better than that.

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…

Sofa-surfing with Nick and Sian

I’ll be on BBC Breakfast with Sian and Nick this Monday at 7:40am or thereabouts, talking about Cyberbullying. The Beeb, I have to say, is eerily empty at that time of day. If you catch me, it’ll be spectacularly bad luck on your part, because it’s probably about a three minute spot. But tune in if you’re a fan of unironed shirts, stubble, and badly matched ties.

Low Standards: How Journalism Works

Learned a valuable lesson this week about how real life gets made over into news stories, and it wasn’t edifying.

There was a tragic accident at my school on Wednesday. That’s as much information as anyone needs to know, because the people that need to know about the minutia already do, and that’s the way it should be. As someone once said, ‘Just because you’re interested in something doesn’t mean you have the right to know about it.’ Which I think is a pretty fine counterpoint to the argument that everyone’s private spheres should be shredded and put on Youtube if there is even the rumour of any public interest in it. A girl fell from a height and seriously injured herself. If you need to know more, Google will assist you. It’s a family matter, and to a much smaller extent, a school and community one.

The aftermath is what I want to talk about; particularly a grim news item that appeared in what I will mellifluously refer to as a London Daily Newspaper. It was just a short story, no more than a footnote really, referring to the accident. I’ll quote you:

A young girl is fighting for her life after falling six floors down a stairwell at her school.

Terrified pupils are thought to have watched as the girl, 11, fell over the banister of a stairwell at the Raine’s Foundation School in Bethnal Green on to her head.

Two years ago an Ofsted report criticised the quality of the school’s buildings.

In 2008 Ofsted inspectors said: “The school’s curriculum, which is satisfactory overall, is hindered by the restriction placed on it by buildings which are not always fit for purpose.”

How journalism works 1: If there are six flights of stairs in my school, I’ll be very interested to see it. Two floors, certainly, which could generously be described as having four flights of stairs between them. Still, six sounds more exciting, doesn’t it? Stick it in.

How journalism works 2: Pupils, terrified or otherwise, didn’t watch as anyone fell over a banister, as all testimony and camera evidence has shown. On the other hand, it’s far more exciting to imagine it if there were. Stick it in.

I suppose we could be generous and say that the reporter did say It was thought, which could mean that the reporter thought it even if it never happened. That’s nice, isn’t it? If I can think it, I can say It Was Thought. A nice linguistic syllogism.

How journalism works 3: The OfSTED report quoted here does indeed make reference to the building as being ‘not always fit for purpose’. No argument there. Which makes it sound as if it was an accident waiting to happen, and we were teaching in a death trap. That’s bad enough; what really pulls my pin out is the implication that the school (by which I mean the staff) allowed this situation to happen and continue. The insinuation is clear, and vile. Because what OfSTED were referring to was the fact that the building, custom-built to Victorian civic specifications, is essentially a different shape, size and structure to what more modern civil architects would design were they to build a new school in 2010. That’s all. Some of the rooms are slightly too large, some of them slightly too small and other more heartbreakingly trivial points. The building (including the banisters) is safe and sturdy. There hasn’t been a premises related accident in living memory or historical record.

But of course, five minutes on Google and the discovery that the building had in some small ways come up short, and we no longer have a tragedy, we have a story. In a vacuum of information, speculation and imagination act as oxygen. What we imagined to have happened becomes what happened, because no one can challenge it, as if the truth was so bleak and unclear that it needed to be tarted up to be taken to market. Well, I don’t have the circulation of the Newspaper, but the school deserves an advocate, so I’ll make it as an individual and not as a representative of the school body.

I can speak with some authority on this: I was teaching a hall of sixth formers, metres away from the accident. I was amongst the staff who were at the scene within seconds, and it is something I hope I never have to repeat. Unlike the reporter, I can confirm the facts, such as they are, and I can confirm how plain, grey and awful they are. They don’t need to be sexed up to inflame interest; if the truth isn’t exciting enough for the prurient tastes of writers or readers then they should pursue fiction and let people endure disaster without the added indignity of conjecture. I was touched and proud of the school’s response to this accident, and the response of the students and other staff. I was less proud that anyone should see opportunity in tragedy for anything other than a respectful description. But why wait for the facts, when fantasy sells stories? The fact that it was such a tiny article, such a scant but scathing aside tossed in to such a small report, makes the implication stand out even more. There was, it must be said, no need to do so.

Why does this happen? I won’t repeat the sin of speculating about a particular reporter’s motives. But I’ll exercise my right to theorise in general. Tragic accidents resist explanation or reasoning; they defy our intuitive habit of trying to explain why things happened, because asking why implies that an intention was at work behind the events. That’s why we turn so easily from blunt descriptions of events towards ‘who’s to blame’ and ‘who can we point at?’

Witness the Volcanic eruption that parked all the planes this year: the story hovered around ‘Volcano erupts’ for a few days because nobody could blame anybody, until quickly it descended into ‘Who’s to blame…for people not getting home/ paying for the hotels, etc?’ It’s as if we need to try to find purchase on tragedy and blind fate, because we can’t imagine that sometimes, things are beyond our control, that we aren’t complete masters of our destinies, and that sometimes, just sometimes, accidents happen and the only correct response is to mourn and to endure.

Dedicated to the family.