I have spent some years arguing from a position of ignorance and opinion that feminism is founded less on a desire for equal opportunities than it is on seeking extra rights for women over men, whom they despise. Having just sat through an inaugural professorial lecture by an academic lawyer, who specialises in European law with a focus on feminism and the Strasbourg European Court of Human Rights, I am more convinced that is true.
I attended with an expectation that a legal academic with a taste for evidence and rational, unbiased judgement would present a much more attractive face of feminism than I see in the papers, with images in my head of CND campaigners and Harriet Harman foaming at the mouth at the unfairness of it all. But I was wrong.
The professor did not, to her credit, talk at all like Harriet Harman, nor look like a shapeless ‘Nukes Out’ Greenham Common camper. She was well spoken and lucid as she presented her research, but the research was not what I expected from academics at a good university. I had, in my naïveté, assumed that most research was similar to the physics papers I read, suffused as they are with original data, error margins, logical deductions, principles and proposals for falsification.
The reality was that the research was a survey and tabulation of just over a hundred cases heard by the European Court. Not the sample size of a thousand favoured by pollsters, despite figures reported to a tenth of a percent. There was no study of failed cases. No statistical analysis of the data to find significant differences. Just cases divided up into groups based on the sexual identity of the claimants and the type of right allegedly infringed.
Everything is a Feminist Issue
The main approach taken was to recast every rights claim as a sex discrimination case if a woman was involved. So, a woman as a single parent traveller, fighting a planning decision preventing her from setting up home in a green belt, should has claimed sex discrimination. (Why? Would a man have been treated differently?) A student at a Turkish university wanted to be able to express her religious identity by wearing an Islamic headscarf should have framed the claim ‘as a female autonomy case’ instead of a religious freedom one. Domestic and sexual violence, since they were ‘female-specific harms’, should require the state to intervene pro-actively to prevent breaches of the Act. This last point prompted a (male) member of the audience to query whether these were really female specific harms (and, by implication, whether framing all infringements affecting women should be twisted into gender issues). This drew sneering, eye-rolling and “for goodness sake” responses from others – how dare a MAN critique a feminist argument!
But the point was a good one. Equality for women under the law is a good thing, and pretty much achieved already. But to grant half the population additional rights, simply on the basis of their gender, is not equality. It is a single issue group advancing the political cause of those under the feminist umbrella at the expense of those outside. And that is not good.
Trying to be Right
Is this a case of lawyers trying to win an argument instead of trying to be right? The professorial lecture the following week was by a female science education researcher, who spent her time showing evidence (real research!) that girls’ and boys’ brains (minds?) are objectively different, and it is possible to teach them in such a way that far fewer girls will be put off studying physics and maths. No sneers here, just questions about the implications of the data. The lady was a self identified feminist, but instead of trying to bias the legal system, she had set to to find the causes of and solutions to the problems she has identified.
OK, so the social sciences have an unhealthy regard for weak correlations and use limited experimental procedures, but they seem to stand head and shoulders over the legal-eagles.
When GCSEs were introduced two decades ago, one of the aims was to help girls catch up with boys in exams. The plan was a classic case of unintended consequences: the requirement for GCSEs to be graded with at least a quarter of the points from coursework has resulted in girls being awarded higher grades across the board.
Although boys and their lack of conformity in the classroom attracted the blame for their deteriorating grades by the feminised teaching profession, the truth is out: boys can doing better than girls. In Mathematics boys are now outperforming girls in all the higher grades.
So what has driven up their scores? Extra relevance of lessons? Better teacher training and school discipline structures? Lessons moved to inner city football clubs or fishing trips for malcontents?
The solution has been obvious for ten years, but has only been implemented because it has become obviouse that work completed at home was open to widespread plagiarism. It has worked for Mathematics GCSE as well as all the International Baccalaureat courses. What is holding the government up from rolling this great innovation to all subjects?
Or the QCA could allow schools to offer the IB and let market forces choose.
Listening to Any Questions on BBC Radio 4 this week, I was surprised by the panellists’ response to a question from the audience about parents who lie on school application forms. It followed the case of Mrinal Patel, who was accused by her council of fraudulently filling in an application for an over-subscribed primary school.
The panel, comic Will Self, columnist Rod Liddle and a couple of historians, all seemed to approve of parents who are economical with the truth because any good parent will do anything for the kids. Since when has the responsibility to push your offspring further and higher trumped any objection to being a deceitful two-faced liar?
Desirable school places are a limited resource – it is a zero sum game. What one parents gains from underhand behaviour, another will lose from following the rules, and this is an objectionable and immoral position to take. Claiming to be doing it for your child is a cop out – next we’ll hear the great and the good on the wireless smugly claiming that they jump the queues at Tesco and Disneyland rides for the kids.
Vocational education in this country has always been rather undervalued, but this is not due to a lack of public interest. Less academic pupils have flocked initially to each new course, encouraged by schools who find them hard to manage in the more traditional subjects. But each has failed in its turn due to political interference and the support of left leaning staff in university education departments.
The new Diplomas will go the same way unless the lessons of history are learned by the government very soon.
First Up — the GCSE
The first big attempt at gaining the parity of esteem for those who were directed towards the less challenging CSEs was abolishing them along with the respected O Level courses and replacing them with the GCSE. These courses removed the stigma of CSEs, which had less emphasis on knowledge, but introduced the worthless F and G pass grades. The last twenty years has seen some improvements in teaching standards, but there has been much sliding in examination standards to produce an endless increase in the average grades awarded to allow weaker and weaker pupils to be gifted the prize of ‘good’ C grades.
But of course, the big failure of GCSEs was to abandon the skills base of CSEs. The academic content of O Levels was extended to all pupils, regardless of ability, in a vain attempt to prove that all could match what had been restricted to the brightest children. The weakness of this socialist fallacy, that differences between people are imposed from without and weak pupils are weak due to schools’ low expectations of poor working class children, is that there is no one course that is suitable for all children.
This has always been accepted in the fields of sports and music, where talented children are taken and trained separately, but has been rejected for History and Mathematics. I’m not suggesting that maths whizzes are given one-to-one lessons away from their peers, just that it is not outrageous to suggest that schooling should recognise differing levels of talent by offering more tailored courses.
Next — GNVQs
More recently, the General National Vocational Qualification (GNVQ) was introduced to allow an option for pupils to follow a skills based course that was (another bugbear!) more focussed on life and job skills. All well and good, the English education sector had been calling out for such an approach for those teenagers who did not benefit awfully well from the academic O-Levels and GCSEs.
However, the politicians got to them first, requiring the exam boards to design into them a knowledge component comparable to existing courses, to avoid the press frenzy of “dumbing down” headlines. And with the facts and theories to learn there came the inevitable formal assessment of that knowledge in exams.
The poor children never stood a chance, since those that schools directed onto these courses had always failed exams. The only solution for the exam boards was to water down the rigor of the exams – dumbing down happened anyway, but the courses became less and less popular with students. Schools loved them, because GNVQs were so easy to pass those schools who enrolled most onto the courses did best in the exam ‘league tables’.
Now we have the latest incarnation of the vocational option. Will it fare any better that the earlier attempts?
If they are to succeed they must be properly designed, with time allowed to review and redesign them. But the timetable has political significance, and the full roll-out must follow immediately from the trials, with final materials in teachers hands before they are actually completed. Government ministers should allow the course designers to make the detailed content design decisions without anyone looking over their shoulders.
And critically, must not try to reach too diverse a group of pupils, although the Advanced Science Diploma already seems to be aimed at all from future laboratory assistants to future Nobel Prize winners. There is a very good argument for having a separate course for those anticipating going on to science-based degrees. Having one course with multiple routes through will cause confusion and damage the qualification’s credibility.
The introductory version of the Science Diploma does not have a clear target group either — is it aimed at being a taster for those who might like to enter science based industries, or should it be a first step up the ladder for those who are capable of higher level study? It can’t do both.
Parity of Esteem Cannot be Mandated
The government has already delayed the introduction of the Advanced Science Diploma by a year, citing development difficulties, but the problems are likely to be intractable if they insist on one science course for all. If they don’t pay heed to the science community the Diplomas will follow the CSE, GCSE and GNVQ to a long drawn out death.
Parity of esteem can only be gained for academic and vocational routes through having high quality courses. Mandating parity by blurring the distinctions is bound to fail.
Universities Minister John Denham has heaped criticism on Chris Patten after his speech at the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference last week, for suggesting that universities could not “make up for the deficiencies of secondary education”:
It is my belief that there is now widespread acceptance across our universities that the current system does not yet capture all the talent that exists in young people across the country, which is why it is all the more disappointing to hear the comments of critics like Chris Patten who have an outmoded view of the central issues in widening participation.
For Denham, “widening participation” seems to be the sole function of elite institutions. He cannot, being a good Marxist, bear the idea that Oxford will not admit the badly educated. Chris Patten, one-time Education Minister and current Chancellor of Oxford and Newcastle Universities, had complained that:
However hard we try to widen participation at Oxbridge, and I am sure you could say the same at many other universities, there is no chance whatsoever of meeting the socio-economic targets set by agents of government so long as the proportion of students getting A grades in traditional academic A-level subjects at private and maintained schools stays the same. It is as simple as that.
It is as simple as that.
As I wrote in a previous post, poorly qualified students do not do well at university. Trying to identify some degree of intrinsic worth or talent in a student at school and then transplanting them to a Russel Group university will not work: an undeveloped talent is not a sufficient preparation for advanced study. A clutch of grade As at A level is not a guarantee either, but like it or not, if a student cannot get high grades at school, for whatever reason, they will start university a long way behind their classmates.
Can universities be expected to make up in three or four years the educational scars left by thirteen years in an inner-city sink school? Denham thinks so, saying that “Education is the most powerful tool we have in achieving social justice.” If he means that accepting weak candidates onto challenging courses is an indicator that social justice has been achieved, then he is seriously deluded. It is not just to set up these poor people for such a fall, as fall they will.
Social justice should not be treated as simply another high-stakes key target that can be improved by crudely manipulating the indicator variable (percentage of sink estate kids at Oxford) directly by coercing universities. The indicator is only useful if it improves indirectly, as a result of better schooling, and that will need a whole slew of ‘indicators’ to be manipulated: financial poverty of families; poverty of ambition in much of the working-class culture; the flight of good teachers to ‘good’ schools; the lack of specialist teachers; and many others.
Of course, this is a difficult task. So difficult that no country has ever solved the problem. Bashing ‘posh’ universities in the press is much easier.
To give the government some credit, though, Denham was making his comments about Lord Patten at a conference for the AimHigher project, which is a major scheme to tackle poverty of ambition by supporting and encouraging children who come from families with no history of Higher Education to consider university and professional careers. My own college has received money to pay for such a scheme from this project and is currently identifying and briefing suitable students and their parents.
I know this, not because of the high quality of internal staff communication, but because several students disappeared from my classroom suddenly, missing two hours of their physics lesson. Apparently, they had been instructed to skip their lessons to attend the compulsory AimHigher meeting.
Hasn’t anyone learned?
Wes Streeting, the National Union of Students President, says in The Guardian education blog of universities that:
There is still a demographic gulf between the richest and poorest institutions; until access to Britain’s “top” institutions becomes a reality, a market can only act as a counter to the pursuit of social justice. A sector that should be an engine room for greater equality instead acts to reinforce inequality of opportunity and outcome.
but he has missed one of the main social effects of mass education.
Educated populations reduce inequality by being able to hold governments and bureaucracies to account, as despots around the world know well. Inequality is not served by coercing universities to recruit poorly educated students who have been let down by their families, communities or schools, or by their own unwillingness to take the opportunities on offer to them.
Students who have been unsuccessful at school are likely to be unsuccessful in university degree courses. The most liberal university entry requirements produce institutions with the highest drop-out rates, wasting a year or two of a young person’s critical career-forming years: the best of intentions can not easily overcome the lack of academic preparation.
Inequality in the country as a whole will be helped by having a critical mass of the population having a sufficient level of education to challenge the status quo. The most disadvantaged will themselves benefit from the best students being educated to the greatest level. We all need an elite in this country: who wants everything important run by the mediocre?