Tag Archives: United Kingdom

Is this advanced?

Far from being ‘advanced’, the further education system in the United Kingdom has a malign tumour at its core, and that tumour is itself.

Where once a pass at A Level was taken as a mark of distinction in a particular subject, with the tantalising A-grade a guarantor of prowess, it’s now a commonplace ornament on a list of eminent achievements expected of every student. A-Levels are symptomatic of society’s obsession with increasingly meaningless grades, a desire to project a plastic fa├žade of competence rather than granite proof thereof.

The situation has deteriorated such that students are now routinely taught how to navigate mark schemes rather than the content they supposedly represent; swallowing prescribed formulas from the first week of most courses, creativity is strangled in favour of marks and, of course, league table positions.

As battery chickens in a dingy coop, students are stuffed with swathes of information to match the mark scheme by the educational machine, creative wings clipped not just by the examination boards but also by the fervent desire of the teachers to obey their whims. In sciences, students complete thousands of past questions to learn the mark scheme rather than the scientific theories or processes to pass the examinations and procrastinate over their actual education, as by laying an egg every day the hen delays slaughter. In arts subjects, the poultry inmates of the education system are systematically taught certain words and phrases which get marks, extending to the extremes in languages by teachers often writing speaking scripts for students to rote-learn.

With 270-word limits imposed on language essays (including, in at least one board, to discuss an entire film therein), where is the room to experiment linguistically, to developed detailed trains of thought or to analyse cinematic elements or societal tenets? When the widely-pronounced acknowledgement that German, for example, takes 33.3% more words as a direct equivalent of the English version, is taken into consideration, what can comprise these essays but sweeping generalisations, superficial narration and an end product linguistically equivalent to an asphyxiated deer, once regal but now swollen and rotting?

Although they are at last being phased out, the insidious ways in which schools manipulate controlled assessments and EMPAs by massaging the dates of papers and playing fast and loose with board regulations to secure their students the best grades at the expense of fair play and a good education, often suggesting content and answering ‘hypothetical’ questions, are endemic.

No wonder students struggle with the gaps between GCSE and AS, between AS and A2 and between A2 and university. Without a solid skill base having been established, what is there to build on but the ethereal departure of hope such a disappointment engenders? The marginalising of actual ability threatens not only the individual student, but more broadly the economy, with one dentist recently telling us how his employees with an A in English Language GCSE are unable to write a document with any sense of spelling, grammar or structure. What foundation is this for any form of advancement?

The pythonic embrace which has descended on further education belies the epithet ‘advanced’ which presides proudly over the heads of many teenagers, smothering any inclination to develop thought processes with absurd time constraints, word limits and concrete mark schemes.

Advanced Levels do not work for the most academically able. They do not work for the least academically able. For a minority caught exactly in the middle, willing to rote-learn mark schemes and manufacture a few paltry paragraphs, what is there to change? All too often various politicians wax lyrical about ‘the few’ of their opponents, yet with this crucial flaw in our society, never was so much slowed for so many by so few.


Heather on the Mountainside

When the heather is still to be seen all around, and the mountains are littered with forests of deer and capercaillie, a whisper flies over all the mountaintops and treetops. A magnificent stag, resplendent with antlers of shining bone, raises himself from his rest. The whisper flutters between pine and fern and, brushing the tufted fur of the stag’s ear, imparts its news. The stag, it says, could leave the pine forest and wander over bracken and thorn to another forest on the eastern slopes of the mountain, where the clearings are said to be grander, the herd smaller and the rivalry lesser. The stag could determine the lineage of the herd for himself, upon which plants his herd ought best to graze and in which location. Otherwise, the stag could remain in the larger forest, not the primary stag amongst his large herd but nevertheless possessed of the prestige thereof, staying with grasses he knows to be fertile and ground he knows to yield goodness.

Whilst composing this rather crude tale in German (during a lesson which wasn’t in fact German – sorry), all the romanticism of the Scottish landscape seemed to fill up my thoughts, as perhaps the state of the post-1918 Liberal party ought to have been doing. The emotion Scott evoked in his readers, imbuing Victorian England with a new-found alacrity for all things Scottish, has almost been aped by Salmond in his drive to secure Scottish independence.

It’s all been analysed in much finer detail in the media, especially R4’s excellent Today, but I think where Salmond has truly excelled with his campaign strategy has been the targeting of the emotional vote. Because, in the end, an important section of the electorate will be swayed not by the fiscal difficulties ensuing from the pound sterling issue, nor by the perilous diplomatic & treaty consequences of independence, but whether Scotland is good enough to stand alone. Whether they feel proud as Scots. Whether they want to honour their heritage, the efforts of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.

In taking IndependentScotland’s online survey, I apparently am 75% No Thanks & 25% Yes. Going on to read their reasons for both sides, I was immediately reminded of an episode of Yes, Prime Minister in which Sir Humphrey tells Bernard how to fix the outcome of a poll.

Since I’m of dual heritage from both countries, I have a vested interest in keeping our kingdom united, as I previously bleated about. I can also see the clear advantages in an independent Scotland, so I thought I’d make my own reasons for swimming with Salmond (**bad joke**) or against him. If I was allowed a vote, these 3 reasons would be why I’d vote for either side.

1. YES – Scotland was once independent, and did pretty nicely, thanks very much.

Well, that’s almost true, barring the awkwardness of the Darien failure, the mess during the Protestant Reformation (partially alleviated during Mary’s short active queenship) and the feudalism of the English ‘overlordship’. With a single head of state, and massive loans required to keep one partner afloat, the Act of Union made sense. Now that the monarch wields little real political power, that’s out of the 1707 equation, whilst Yes say North Sea oil will keep the country afloat in addition to cutbacks on defence expenditure. Holyrood is 17 years old so the political infrastructure is almost there.

2. NO – Scotland enriches the other kingdoms and is equally enriched.

Everyone uses Andy Murray so I’ll use his mother – captain of the Davies Cup team and one of the most interesting prospects for Strictly Come Dancing this year. In seriousness though (actually I was being serious, because I’ve drawn Judy in a sweep-stake), culturally speaking, the unity of intra-UK interest really does benefit us all. It’s more accessible than it is with other states, and is therefore more beneficial.

3. YES – Scotland has a different political agenda to the rest of the UK

There are more pandas in Scotland than Conservative MPs – an oft-quoted but nevertheless funny fact. With an effective Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition ruling from (ahem) Westminster, how can Scotland’s needs and priorities be given full importance when most of the Scots MPs are just hurling insults (and empty promises) from the opposition benches? Scotland can govern its economy, citizenry and everything else in better accordance with its wishes and needs from Edinburgh. Scotland wants subsidised university fees – they can have them. No nuclear weaponry? Fine. More pandas? Fine.

4. NO – **Diplomatic warning lights**

By sticking in the UK, Scotland has a voice at the highest diplomatic summits and conferences and carries much more weight than it would as a separate state. Barroso and several other European persons of importance have said that Scotland would not be welcome in the EU – most Scottish politicians claim they don’t want to be either. But without a place in the EU, how can Scotland expect to improve it, to work in close harmony with its European partners? Various treaties would need to be constructed which would take several years – it can of course be achieved, but at the cost of important roles in global discussions.

5. YES – We can make it!

Norway used to be under Danish rule until the 19th century, and they’ve done jolly well as an independent state. Their topography, economy & demographics are comparable to Scotland. There have been years of English gain at Scottish expense – the Wars for Independence, the Highland Clearances, the industry – it’s time to reclaim the land as Scottish and construct our own corridor to our future.

6. NO – Carving

Many British families are a patchwork of all the constituent nations, and so to ‘be Scottish’ has various interpretations. Many people are simply and indistinguishably British, so why should we be forced to choose between our genetic allegiances?

The emotional emphasis of Salmond’s work has had a positive impact on his polling – when the referendum was announced I assumed No would win, but will they? In less than 9 days we shall see if sense and sensibility prevails over pride and persuasion.