Why is Michael Gove ignoring pupils with learning disabilities?

Photo: Regional Cabinet via Flickr

When Michael Gove officially floated his GCSE reforms to the Commons this week, you’d have been forgiven for thinking that his most important breakthrough was to be making the school-leavers’ exams hard again, like they were in the sepia past, so widespread is the assumption that exams are getting easier, children thicker. Britain, the poor lamb, in the clutches of a coursework cheating epidemic, dads up and down our grey isles, wide-eyed and fervent, scribbling out little Johnny’s history homework. Or naughty Sally, hungrily vacuuming Wikipedia and printing it off as her own work. Lest any journalist be guilty of that.

Say what you like about Gove and do not forget that he is an apt and ruthless homogeniser: pupils, down to the last dim-witted gumchewer to leave school this summer, have been getting away with it for too long. Their older brothers and sisters Had It So Good with all their lovely passes. All those C grades. Knowledge on credit. But now somebody has to pay it back, to atone for this opulence. The ones suffering, and how unlike the Tories for this, are the disabled. And the British media are complicit.

You see, in harping on about GCSEs given out free with the Metro for the past twenty years, what we miss is how tough many students find the very fabric of our education system. One in ten UK children has dyslexia, a disability which affects how one reads, counts, spells and organises thoughts. In an exam, this can play havoc with how one structures written answers, processes information, recalls from memory or, say, weighs up contributing or overlapping factors.

An example: last June, an AQA GCSE history paper asked candidates: ‘Which was the more important reason for the outbreak of the First World War in 1914: the assassination of Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, or the Schlieffen Plan?’ Now, in writing an essay response to this end, with reduced or severely limited ability to either spell correctly, remember important data, rank causes, structure an argument, place an introduction or conclusion in their correct context, write quickly, or a combination of any/all of these, one might reasonably think this to be something of an uneven playing field. Moreover, the government is compelled not to discriminate by the Equality Act 2010 and the UN’s 2006 Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Coursework, though it has detractors, offers at least a far less time-sensitive framework for students who, with dyslexia, dyspraxia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, or ADHD, some of which regularly occur contemporaneously, can enjoy an education system that tests them fairly. Pupils with learning disabilities perform better in modular courses, with less time pressure, allowing for continuous assessment. But this was too pleasant. Too dynamic. Too sympathetic.

Three children in every class (of thirty) have a disability which prevents or hinders them from having a fair education. And yet the most significant effect of these reforms is being ignored by a press obsessed with intergenerational warfare, in slamming kids today for heinously failing in their obligation to be taught well.

When these disabilities are diagnosed, support is given to pupils: extra time in exams, help with spelling, learning aids, and so on. But many cases go undiagnosed until university or long into adult life. Those who aren’t spotted and helped at an early stage can struggle to pass the kinds of exams Gove wants to make the one and only yardstick for learning success. And when you consider how heavily employers and university/college admissions staff are now being forced to place their faith in examinations, it can mean nought but a disadvantage to those for whom exams are an unfair and oppressive form of testing. We already know that the learning disabled are severely over-represented in the criminal justice system and among the unemployed. Why persist with a cruel reform that will only punish them further?

On top of this, the NHS does not yet recognise dyslexia as a disability, meaning that education institutions do always not take a lead in helping pupils to be diagnosed, making it often only available to the rich and regularly not until later in life, such as at universities, who tend to have more targeted help and can often finance the costs of diagnosis and support.

We cannot begin to challenge discrimination against the learning disabled in schools and workplaces while we allow an education system to exist which treats their disadvantage with contempt or while we jam our fingers in our ears. The number of newspapers and their websites that carried this warning this week: zero. And while we have a press that stays silent on the disadvantaged, we will not be able to help the learning disabled struggling under the leaden foot of the Education Secretary’s privilege.

(This piece is also on the Huffington Post’s website, just about here.)


Excellent reasons to veto New Year’s Eve

Here are some outstandingly logical reasons for why New Year’s Eve is a hot gravy of dump.

People who think self-help is normal get rich
New Year’s Eve is a beacon of regeneration. The new year, a new start, and so on. It tends to form a handy little fulcrum between your new, good life with happy thoughts and all that big nice and your old, nasty life, replete with obesity or heavy drinking or sweating when you walk up the stairs. And because it is the universally-acknowledged date when Everything Good That Needs To Happen happens, it gives self-help ‘gurus’ money. Homeopaths, happy-clappy pull-your-socks-up bastards and – worse – the religious, who use January 1st as some sort of purifying ice bath to cleanse you of your hitherto incalculable douchebaggery and then stick you for £39.99 a month for some irredeemably unphilosophical horse-arse about your inner god or goddess. No, thanks.


It makes you an imperialist
If you eat strawberries in February, you’re an imperialist. You are enjoying the luxuries of an historical conflict where some perennially hot country – perfect for the growing of such fruit when English strawberries are out of season – was conquered by the white people who wanted Eton mess and strawberry milkshakes all the year around, their market smashed by the inevitable evisceration of the planet that is global capitalism. And it’s the same with the calendar. Our calendar is only our calendar because a bunch of people who later went on to conquer most of the world killed another bunch of people with a different calendar. Maybe because they used iCal. iCal is shit. I don’t know. But the point is that January 1st is not a cosmic axis on which one passage of celestial time passes to another, like an inexorable law of life. January 1st is as arbitrary as having New Year on July 1st. Except, unlike in July, it’s not freakin’ freezing when you’re throwing up on the high street at 3am.

It kills Christmas
New Year is the lingering tagnut of Christmas, like the eating of an enormous meal and inevitably having a have poo afterwards. The circle of poo. The inevitability of your futile biological system. One of the worst aspects of Christmas is the lag between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve, convinced, as we are, that we are dragging the holiday period out a little longer, delaying its end, hauling around a big, dead turkey corpse on our backs which makes the depression of January 2nd all the greater. What we really ought to do is divorce it from Christmas entirely; a nice rebrand and we’d all be so much happier.

It makes you an Aristotelian
Aristotle’s social philosophy, broadly speaking, reckoned man to be a social being. We humans can only live rationally and, well, humanely, as political actors, communicators, legislators, thinkers and so on but – most importantly – as part of a community, as citizens. So: parties are rational and human. Debate, discussion, chat, heavy drinking, MDMA – all a part of Aristotle’s rich, classical tapestry. Sort of. Except this is total fucking bullshit. We’re pretty cool on our own, thank you. Embrace the wretched irrationality of the human mind. Our instincts work well enough, our thoughts are true and just and good because we have thought them, Aristotle. You with your fucking cocktail and cheese on a stick. Yeah? Yeah. What about my subjectivism? You silly sod.

It fosters cosmic delusions
As above, New Year tends to place a little too much emphasis on the passing of time and our role alongside that slinky monkey. It has a religious aura to it – not least because it follows a major festival in the Christian faith, but also because one is often encouraged to think of one’s place in the universe. What have you done this year? What will be your future? Does any of it matter? Inevitably, cod-spiritual witch-wankers chirp up around this time of year to remind us of the insignificance of our existence owing to (sometimes) the size of the universe and the unrelenting march of time but mostly our place before God and His creation. The beauty of our place in the universe is gloriously unlimited; the beauty of our universe in your self-entitlement delusion is all smeared in shit.

My letter to Oxford: full-time courses price out the poor

Those of you who follow my writing (eagle-eyed, I imagine, with robust gag reflexes) may have already seen a blog I wrote about postgraduate funding for the Intergenerational Foundation. Long story short: I got in to Oxford for a master’s but I can’t go thanks to a combination of tiny savings, broke Mum, no loans, bonkers-competitive scholarships and Oxford requesting all £17,000 to be accounted for up front. Ho hum.

Today, I was sent an e-mail informing me of the inevitable: my offer to Oxford (Oriel College) will expire in 3 days, short of a sudden, enormous Monopoly-style bank error in my favour that means I can pay. The response I received from the College was this:

Dear Josh,

Thanks for your quick response.

I am sorry to hear that you have not managed to find any suitable support for your MSt and would like to take this opportunity to wish you all the best with your future studies.

Yours sincerely,

Admissions Officer

Evidently, it is not the fault of the admissions officer (whose name I have not published, just in case it’s all illegal or data protectiony or a bit that’s-how-they-got-Murdoch). But I was angry at the casual tone of the response. Sorry. Good luck for the future. All the best, old bean. It’s a tone which connotes normality, acknowledging without complaint that it’s an everyday truism that poorer applicants simply cannot get in to study at Oxford. Sorry, pal. Cuh. Whatcha gonna do, eh?

So I wrote a letter of complaint to the History Faculty, homing my ire in on the rigidity of the full-time degree structure which means students must find the full fees and living costs before they enrol – a structure which clearly benefits the rich (or rich-parented) at the expense of the poor.

Dear [Faculty Graduate Admissions],

I’m writing to express my disappointment that history courses at Oxford are not offered in a part-time format. I have been made an offer to start in September, but unless I find the required £17,000 for full-time study before Friday, my offer from Oriel will be withdrawn. I am an applicant from a low-income, single parent, working class family with no savings even close to the required costs for fees and maintenance. There are no student loans for postgraduates and with scholarships being so competitive (as well as not being means tested) poorer graduates are being shut out of postgraduate study at Oxford.

It is deeply exclusionary to expect all applicants to have that amount of money up front. Moreover, with respect, it is misguided and out of date. More and more graduates are turning to postgraduate study (a five-fold increase in the UK since 1990) as a means of furthering their education and of distinguishing themselves from the thousands of other graduates competing for the same jobs. Part-time courses would allow flexibility. Students would need only to find part of the fees before their course and could earn money alongside their studies. History courses at Oxford could be opened up to thousands more applicants from a variety of backgrounds, injecting new, exciting and dynamic experiences into the study and practice of history. Until that flexibility is possible, it can only mean a continuation of the hegemony in academia, and history, of white males from the middle and upper classes.

I hope that steps may be taken to this end so that future applicants are able to accept their places and enjoy the opportunity to study at Oxford.

Yours sincerely,
Josh White

I await a response.


Response from Oxford today (04/07) at 11:30am.

Dear Josh,

Thank you very much for this. I will pass it on and hope that your comments will be put to good use.

Please let us know if you need to withdraw from your place.

Best wishes,

[Faculty Graduate Admissions]


EP Review: Spineless Yes Men, ‘Better Side Of The Bar’

London band Spineless Yes Men are an interesting beast. This 3-track EP is short – very short – but long on effort and slathered in likeable charm. The band are tough to define. Not really punk rock nor indie nor pop, they traverse a substantial canyon between the three, slapping melodies about with abandon. At times like The Hoosiers or Scouting For Girls (wait, give them a chance), they also summon up the best sunny punk of The Bouncing Souls or Social Distortion, or like their compatriots Graveltrap or Not Katies. But this sounds disarmingly non-American. That’s not to say SYM are playing it all wrong. It’s still pretty rare to hear a UK band who pitch themselves as pop-punk and don’t suffer from the accidental So-Cal accent. Tommy Towers is an adept frontman, clever at harnessing the band’s traction energy and smartly keeping crunchy verses punchy and tense.

This takes the best of the early 2000s and squeezes in a load of pop. ‘Dickens Would Have Made You A Gentleman’ is a bit of a [Spunge] throwback. Catchy and well-paced, it’s a great example of what this band can do. ‘Raindrop Shadows’, though, shows the limitations of their sound. Occasionally, chorus lines can feel flat, rushed or under-thought. The lead guitar can also be heavy and clumsy, dashing in and out of vocal lines, a bit like ruining your chips by shaking too much ketchup on them. And there is not a great deal here that is really new. The poppier end of pop-punk has been all but sewn up by our friends from across the Atlantic who do it with more cheese and less shame. But where this band have real potential is in harnessing their indie touches. This record hints at something a little more Maccabees than MxPx, more Libertines than Lagwagon, and here they might find success in digging up some new ground. Promising.


This is a review for New Reviews, also available here.

Television, like history, is written only by the winners

At April’s annual Oxford-Cambridge Jack Wills Boating Festival of Blonde Quiffs on the Thames, a dangerous new form of protestor called a ‘swimmer’, or ‘breast-stroke Marxist’, disrupted the world-famous race, halting two very snazzy boats carrying lots of pointlessly muscly, pointlessly expensive people down a river. The BBC’s anointed correspondent for the sporting endeavours of the landed gentry, Clare Balding, whizzed up and down the Thames on her speedboat, telling us viewers how wickedly important it was that we watched the action (with Balding taking a watery break from her usual presenting haunt – standing next to some tiny, rich, white folks who crouch on horses and beat  the crap out of them and crash them and shoot them).

The BBC, like Sky Sports’ shouty football coverage, has a perpetual propensity for self-inflated chest-pumping. Auntie’s TV events are not events – they are Events. Indeed, like all TV – we can blame 24-hour rolling news with its debasing use of ‘breaking news’ – the BBC is a hearty supporter of the hyperbolic. Big events like the World Cup final, the royal wedding and, to a lesser extent, the Boat Race, get their own dose of super slo-mo HD introductions, usually some silly poetry, gloriously epic Hans Zimmer-esque music, and so on. TV sells TV like nothing else. These are glossy productions designed to sell you one (and only one) type of product: suburban, petit-bourgeois, pro-monarchy identity fetishism.

The Boat Race was watched by 3.3m people. A hefty chunk, yes – but that is less than 6% of the UK’s population. Now, no argument (not even with the cavalier brilliance of the first two paragraphs here) could sensibly suggest that the Boat Race has any great impact on British socio-cultural values. But it is, definitively, a chunk of something much larger – TV’s remarkable ability to anaesthetise us. Few question the weight of the ‘history’ or ‘tradition’ of the Boat Race – we just reckon Balding is warmly leafing through our own cultural fabric, saying nice things in nice ways about ‘pride’ and ‘passion’ and ‘institutions’ and seldom considering what we are being asked to swallow as history – as truth.

The Boat Race and royal wedding, like the Olympics and Jubilee coverage will be, are part of a national infatuation with a sort of uniform faux-heritage. TV Event narratives – read by a Huw Edwards or a Gary Lineker – always tap in to some collective sense of identity, usually national, but often white, or middle-class, that are designed in some way to make the viewing unit (the family, the couple, the futon masturbator) feel attached to the national, communal whole. That’s hardly an outrageous statement: TV has been used for propaganda since its creation. What is outrageous is that it is still so prevalent now, in 2012, in our crunched, creditless times, in the shows we watch and the coverage we absorb and that a particular brand of ideas and values can be so unchallenged and can permeate our living rooms in such an unassuming way.

In the United States, tradition is a potent weapon in political rhetoric, far more so than in the UK. In Whitehall, much like Alastair Campbell’s assertion that New Labour’s would not ‘do God’, since the mid-90s one would struggle to find continued, explicit references to national identity in either the manifestos, press releases, policy statements or conference speeches of the mainstream parties. Contemporary political discourse simply does not ‘do Britishness’. Chest-thumping, Rule Britannia love-ins are the product only of the media. We’ve known for many years about how the newspapers use constructed notions of identity in order to whip up tensions – and sell papers. (The Daily Mail and the Daily Express are almost single-handedly responsible for the EDL and the BNP.) But these identity straw men are also stitched into the lining of televisual ‘culture’.

The Hunger Games, out in cinemas at around the same time as the Boat Race, was a brilliant, if slightly nonsensical (200mph super-trains, dresses made of fire – but no guns?) fictionalisation of how a politico-X Factor would run the world. Think The Voice with Lenin and Ceausescu on the panel. I know, I know – it’s fiction. And the novel is atrocious. But the film is excellent, and a fictional reductio ad absurdum is not always worthless. In the film, ‘heritage’ and ‘tradition’ are used to justify the subjugation of the rural poor to the will of the urban elite, with a game, for the entertainment of the ruling class, in which the poor must fight and kill each other for the ‘glory’ of their particular district. Now think about the X Factor. No contestant is being told to give their life in the arena (only their productive labour power) but the show’s competitors are predominantly working-class, painted as proud [insert region]ers, doing it for their mates at the local or for their families. The poor are plucky nobodies whose heartfelt tales are gently piped into Surrey living rooms, the Saturday audience of the eye-wettingly mawkish.

Television owns, builds and propagates a comfy idea of Britishness, not unlike in fin de siecle Europe. From the middle of the nineteenth century, the British upper class created the pomp and circumstance of the monarchy. Pall Mall, Trooping the Colour – we associate these traditions with centuries of heritage. But, in reality, they were created in the lifetimes of, at most, your grandma’s grandma – in the last one hundred and fifty years. And yet, we take it for granted that the monarchy, with all its ceremonial farts and flag-waving is part of our DNA. It isn’t. It is no more a part of us than a hairstyle or a jumper.

Like television, history is concocted by whomsoever is powerful enough to do so, by whoever the hell needs us to believe that the English bravery is in our blood. For the glory of our people, never ever shall be slaves, and so on. TV is the organ of the elites. So when Sue Barker or that bloke who does Formula 1 are grinning at us all summer with hours of saccharine Olympics coverage, and they start talking crudely about ‘strength’ and ‘passion’ and ‘patriotic spirit’, you’ll think about The Hunger Games, won’t you? The festival of Britishness will include only those whom television producers wish to include. If you are not that kind of British then you are not a winner. And you are not invited.

(This is an article for the fantastic Limbo Quarterly, which is out now and available here.)