Friday, 31 May 2013

Conflating community and state

Libertarians and other people on the right are often accused of not caring about people, of adopting a laissez-faire attitude which protects privilege and confines others to the bottom of the income scale. In this school of thought the welfare of individuals within society is the responsibility of the state. The state ensures the wellbeing of citizens by providing. The degree to which the state provides varies by left-winger, but may include benefits in kind (healthcare, education, housing, childcare), benefits in cash (unemployment, disability, tax credits, pensions), and may extend to regulation of markets (minimum wage, job guarantees, state ownership of industry).

In contrast, libertarians do not believe in a large state providing all of these things for people. Libertarians believe in a small state providing the framework which allows people to do for themselves. Libertarians believe that a large state is inefficient, ineffective, and has perverse dynamic effects. Large states which intervene in the market reduce competition, innovation and growth. Large states which provide so much for their citizens help to make people lazy and irresponsible: a sense of entitlement with no sense of responsibility. Large state bureaucracies are inefficient and unwieldy, wasting tax payer’s money. Instead, the state should focus on providing a legal framework which promotes competition over monopolies, and social policies which allow people to engage in the market (e.g. many libertarians are passionate educationalists).

Disagreement over the role of the state leads to all kinds of accusations. These are particularly fierce in a society accustomed to handing over responsibility to the state. The left wing discourse suggests that anyone who does not think the state should do all of these things does not care about poverty or people, and only cares about privilege and maintaining the status quo.

That just isn’t true.
The point is that as a society – as a community – we are responsible for each other. We have a duty of care to our fellow citizens and human beings. We have a duty of care to our family, our neighbours and our wider community. In making the state responsible for so many things we have forgotten this duty. We expect a distant other to look after us and the needier members of society. We expect a distant other to pay the tax to foot the bill. We abdicate all responsibility and sense of power ourselves.

The state becomes regarded as an actor or a person itself. We forget that the state is just a collective expression of us all. The state is not above or outside of the community. The state is an expression of our national community.

The point is that we are responsible for each other. That is the principled stance. Depending on the need, the solution will be most effective at a different level. Sometimes that means the state is the most efficient way to provide. But sometimes it is the family, community, local government, or voluntary or charitable organisations. These methods of provision are not inferior or less principled. They too are an expression of our collective responsibility to one-another.

The problem is that we have now gotten so used to not being responsible for ourselves, our families, our neighbours, or our wider community. How do we restore a sense of responsibility and civic duty? Instead of thinking about what you should be entitled to, think about what you can do for yourself and for others. 

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Equal marriage

For me, and many like me (I suspect anyone under the age of 35 who is not evangelically religious) equal marriage is just a none issue.

Equal marriage is the 'shrug your shoulders and say "yeh, why didn't it happen years ago?"' policy.

Equal marriage is the 'we already call civil partnerships weddings, and their results husbands/wives, so what's the big deal?' policy.

Equal marriage is the 'actually, we're mostly not religious so you don't get to tell us what to do any more' policy.

The whole opposition movement is just baffling to me.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

My experience of the state education system

I am passionate about delivering high quality education to all. Lots of people are. But many (most?) of these people speak from a position of relative privilege. They attended fee paying schools, grammar schools, or high performing state schools. (or even just decent state schools)

I didn't.

My primary school was OFSTED inspected when I was in year 6, and placed in special measures. My first secondary school was closed half way through my GCSEs due to poor performance. A neighbouring school was expanded to take us all in. The result was that only 25% of my school year reached the benchmark of five good GCSEs including English and Maths (four years later, 26% achieved the same). Many of my peer group achieved no GCSEs at all. No qualifications at all. Some could only be described as, at the age of 16, functionally illiterate.

Such a failure of education has given me strong views on the subject. Sure, I can't assume that everywhere faces the same problems as my schools. Yes, it is important to take a macro view of education and analyse various case studies and factors. But it is also important to root your theory in the real world. A real world experience.

So in my real world experience, what were the problems?

Children running riot (on a couple of memorable occasions, literally). Teachers totally out of control. Poor quality teaching. Low expectations and low achievement. Lateness, truancy, and a general lack of discipline.

The attitude amongst staff in the school was that all of this was to be expected. Look at the community it served: the children were clearly no hopers. To be fair, it is a difficult community. The usual problems of unemployment, welfare dependency, substance (alcohol, drugs) abuse, absent parents (more then average numbers in prison). The classic sink estate.

However, the attitude amongst staff was inexcusable. Those children had real potential. Yes, they were bit of a tough crowd, but that doesn't excuse giving up on them before even trying.

The problem, ultimately? Poor leadership.

The head teacher and his team created a culture of low aspiration. They accepted sub-standard teachers. They did not demand more and better from staff or pupils, and they did not create a disciplined and supportive environment in which staff and pupils could succeed.

Labour's answer?

The same as always: spend lots of money. They rebuilt the school whilst keeping the same management and teaching team. A few years later OFSTED put the school in to special measures and closed it.

The school reopened as an academy in 2011 with an ambitious team taking a no-nonsense, no-excuses, aspiration approach.

In 2012 56% of students achieved five good GCSEs including English and Maths.

When people talk about Michael Gove and I say he is an hero of mine, they look at me like I am mad. But I know - I am certain - that the free schools program and expansion of academies is absolutely what schools like my former one need. These policies tell educators that they can no longer blame poor performance on a tough crowd: they must aim high and they must innovate. Furthermore, the reforms equip leaders and teachers with the tools to do so.