The Obscurer

It's Educational

Do you ever watch “The Daily Politics” on BBC2? You probably don’t. It’s on every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday around midday, and so is mainly the preserve of shift-workers, the workshy, and those people at home looking after their 15 month old son.

I am lucky enough to belong to all 3 groups! As a result I regularly watch the programme. Believe me it is a welcome relief from wondering whether or not they have changed the actress who does Bella’s voice on the Tweenies, or the “will they/won’t they” antics of Miss Hooley and PC Plum on Balamory!

Anyway, the other week the presenter Andrew Neil was talking to the former BBC political commentator John Cole. The subject was Shirley Williams, and they were talking about her legacy now that she has stepped down as Liberal Democrat’s leader in the Lords. They covered the obvious aspects of her being one of the first prominent female MP’s, her leaving the Labour Party to form the SDP, and then her part in merging the SDP with the Liberal Party. But eventually they covered her role as Education secretary in the Wilson Labour Government, and the closure of many Grammar Schools on her watch. Andrew Neil mentioned the fact that Northern Ireland had been spared this policy, and still had many excellent Grammar schools. “Yes,” said John Cole, and although I am paraphrasing wildly, he then stated “but we still have a lot of very poor Secondary Moderns we really need to work on.”

What is remarkable about that statement is that it is the only occasion in recent years that I can remember Secondary Moderns even being mentioned in the debate on Grammar Schools. It is almost as if they don’t exist. Perhaps the proponents of the Grammar system are ashamed of them, as if they were a rather embarrassing Aunt. But if you have the grammar school system then you must have secondary moderns; or something like them with a different name.

I attended a Comprehensive school, and I don’t have any complaints. I got my O levels (showing my age there), I got my A levels, I scraped a 2:2 in Economics at Bradford University, and they don’t just give them away, you know. I even got a Post-graduate Diploma in Marketing, although I am sure that is because my exam paper got mixed up with one belonging to someone who knew what they were talking about. So I think my Comprehensive education did me alright, and I suppose as a result I feel some loyalty to the system. Could I have achieved more if I had been educated in a Grammar school. Possibly; we will never know. But what if I had failed my 11-plus? What then. Just taking the, admittedly, narrow field of academic success, how would I have fared? Would my sights have been set on attending university at all? Would I have even sat my O levels, marked out instead for CSEs and vocational qualifications?

I am not closed to the possibility that there is an alternative. I certainly don’t discount the fact that there is a role for setting and streaming within Comprehesives; the Grammar school versus Comprehensive argument often gets confused with the argument for or against mixed-ability schooling, but it shouldn’t. The problem is that whenever the issue is discussed, Grammar school supporters talk of the greater success rates at Grammar school, which is probably not surprising if they have a greater proportion of the more intelligent pupils in the first place. But what happens to the pupils in those areas who fail to get into Grammar schools? Do they similarly do better than they would do under a Comprehensive system. I don’t know, because they never get mentioned. Where are the glowing descriptions of Secondary Modern successes, to complement the Grammar school tales?

Perhaps if I analysed all the figures comparing Comprehesives, Grammar schools and Secondary Moderns, I would find the grammar system is better, although let’s face it, if I were given the figures, I probably wouldn’t understand them. And perhaps there is an argument for splitting people into Grammar schools and Secondary Moderns, so each group of pupils can get an education tailored to their ability range; except historically the Secondary Moderns were the dumping grounds, the sink schools, the schools for the forgotten. Why would that be different now? Where would the better Teachers prefer to teach?

Those who support the grammar system I am sure deeply believe it is better, and they may be right. But until they start talking about what happens to those who fail the 11-plus, I will stay loyal to the Comprehensives.

PostScript: while I am talking about education, (tenuous link alert!) it seems an appropriate time to mention “rooblog“, a website I have been reading recently which appears to be written by a system support worker at a college in Salford. I am not usually a fan of personal type blogs – there is only so much I can read about a sophomore’s love life, and how she has just flunked a whole semester of math – but this is great. Funny, quirky, off-beat and very well written; if you love “Walking Like Giant Cranes” you will love this.

Iraq Again Or

By now, I don’t think anyone is surpised that the Iraq Survey Group has announced there are no Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. Infact the worst they can say is that there is “framentary” and “circumstantial” evidence that Saddam wanted to restart a programme once the UN sanctions were removed. Was this really a good enough reason to go to war in the name of WMD.

I don’t think so. The reaction from our politicians has been risible. George Bush says Iraqi scientists still had the knowledge under Saddam to create CBRN weapons which could be passed onto terrorists; but presumably scientists with such knowledge, in Iraq or elsewhere, are able to do so if they want to, whoever is in charge of Iraq. Jack Straw says we now know the threat “in terms of intentions” was “even starker than we have seen before”; but surely not as stark as having WMD ready to fire in 45 minutes. Tony Blair has started talking about Saddam doing his best to subvert UN Sanctions, as if we went to war 18 months ago because of something the ISG has only just announced. It all seems a long way from a clear and present danger, a war we had to wage there and then as a last resort. But by now we are used to the justifications for war having changed. Jack Straw always talks of Iraq’s broken UN resolutions as if that is why we went to war, despite the fact there was no UN resolution authorising force; and anyway, surely the resolutions were about WMD, they were the mechanism and WMD still the stated reason we went to war. Tony Blair talks of not apologising for removing Saddam, and that history will forgive him, but do you remember anyone asking him to apologise for toppling the Baath party? And anyway, he specifically ruled out regime change in the run up to war.

So if the politicians think they have done nothing wrong, what about the intelligence services? According to David Kay, the former leader of the Iraq Survey Group, speaking on Channel Four News, this is the real issue, and this is where the blame ought to lie. But hold on. I remember reading plenty of newspaper articles prior to the war casting doubt on the claims of WMD in Iraq, from the likes of former UNSCOM inspector Scott Ritter. Did the Prime Minister not read them? Did he not listen to Robin Cook’s resignation speech in the Commons, when he stated Iraq probably didn’t have WMD? Or did he just not want to believe.

Before the war, I didn’t know if there were WMD in Iraq or not. I thought that Hans Blix was in a better position than me to tell, and should have been given the time he felt he needed to find out. But I also felt that George Bush was bent on regime change, whatever the cost, for whatever reason, be it oil, unfinished business, strategic interests, or all three, and that Tony Blair had already decided to support him, come what may. Nothing I have heard since has changed my mind. I think Blair probably thought there were WMD in Iraq, but in the end it didn’t really matter what the intelligence said. When your mind is made up, you will believe what you want to believe. I don’t buy the idea that Blair decided on war on a cold examination of the intelligence. That looks to me like putting the cart before the horse.

In the end Hans Blix couldn’t have put it better in one of his last speeches to the UN Security Council before the war. He said if you asked him if whether Iraq was in breach of UN resolutions then it was, but if you asked him if UNMOVIC could conclude its inspections within months then it could. Put another way, if you want an excuse for war, then you have it, but if you wanted the WMD issue settled peacefully, that could be done. We had the excuse for war, and so we went to war. That is the politicians responsibility, not the intelligence services, as Blair more or less stated, inadvertently, when he rejected a request for the Butler Enquiry to look into the use of intelligence material, on the grounds that it is up to Government to decide on the basis of information.

I don’t want Blair to apologise for the war; that is expecting too much, and anyway, I wouldn’t believe him. But surely the time has come when he should stop grasping onto any new nugget of information about how Saddam may have, if he could, once every Preston Guild, have quite liked to get some WMD, and that this vindicates a war based in an immediate threat from unconventional weapons. Surely the time is long overdue when he tells us how he can justify the war because it removed Saddam, yet still not talk of regime change. In fact the time is long overdue when someone directly asks him explain that contradiction; does he now believes in regime change, and if not, then how can he rely on it to justify the invasion. You never know, he may come clean, and explain why regime change was justified, and where and when it should be permitted in the future. I would have more respect for him if he did, and you never know; he might just convince me.

PostScript: I am sick of writing and thinking about the Iraq War now, and so hopefully this will be my last post on the subject. But I wouldn’t bet on it!