Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Three things Michael Gove should know

This is a cross-post of a piece I have up over on Lib Dem Voice.

One of the things that seems to characterise tory ministers in this government is a remarkable attraction to putting ideology and an assumption that they know best ahead of little details like "facts" and "evidence based policy".

A good example of this comes in the form of Michael Gove’s education reforms which have been characterised by a breathtaking disregard for decades of research into what works and an aversion to listening to anything or anyone who disagrees with the reforms.

Nevertheless, I'd like to highlight the following facts about education which it would be nice if he were to pay attention to:

Starting maths early damages educational outcomes

Another feature of the Gove reforms is the insistence on starting on basic subjects like English and maths as early as possible in the belief that this will magically boost the numeracy and literacy of students. Unfortunately, evidence shows that, because of the way that children's brains develop, they aren't capable of properly handling abstract concepts like algebra before the age of 14. Trying to force pupils to learn topics like algebra before that age actually permanently lowers their academic results.


Big end of year exams are bad for learning

One of the centre-pieces of the changes to GCSEs is the insistence on scrapping all coursework and modular exams and replacing them with a single three hour exam covering the entire syllabus for each subject which will have to be sat by pupils at the end of their two years of GCSE studies.

However, the flaw with this approach is that all the evidence shows that big end of year exams are a terrible way of getting pupils to memorise information.

And the reason for this should be obvious from the experience of almost everyone who's ever sat a big exam - pupils cram for the exam shortly before they sit it and then the information goes out of their heads almost immediately afterwards.

In fact, the best way of getting pupils to remember information is to have regular, small exams (just like GCSEs had prior to the Gove reforms) to make sure that pupils are keeping up with the material - this has been found to raise overall scores by 16% and has proved so successful that Harvard University has pretty much eliminated them as a part of courses.


Academic competition hinders learning

Finland has come top of global educational rankings since 2000. The reason for this is due, at least in part, to their highly autonomous education system where there are no national league tables or exams with teachers being trusted to test and assess their pupils themselves.

And this approach is supported by evidence which shows that pupils in systems which focus on academic competition amongst pupils and on standardised academic assessment actually results in poorer mental health and academic results of pupils - mainly because they spend more time worrying about potentially doing badly in tests compared to other pupils.

So, there you have it, three important things about education systems based on evidence and research which Michael Gove should really know but which his education reforms ignore completely. It would be niceto think that someone in the education department (perhaps even Mr David Laws) might actually take note of the evidence and call a halt to the reforms in favour of evidence based policy but I doubt it will happen.

My inspiration for this piece came from this article which, despite its lighthearted tone, draws attention to serious educational research which politicians around the world seem to pay far too little attention to.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Why blogs are more reliable than the press

Good news blogosphere! I have found the perfect example to illustrate why blogs are more reliable than the press and articles in newspapers!

Yesterday Lib Dem Voice published an utterly bizarre piece by one Michael Taylor in which, on the basis of a ten year old book he's just read, he asserts that the new discoveries (e.g. the decade old "discoveries") of "cosmoclimatology" turn all models of climate change on their head and that Lib Dems should consider this important new "evidence".

Well, the article is a complete and utter load of hokum. Taylor begins the article with:
I have just finished reading what for me is the most thought provoking book I have ever read. I was totally unaware until I read The Chilling Stars by Nigel Calder and Henrik Svensmark that not only does the earth move round the sun, but that the sun moves round the Milky Way Galaxy that we live in.
Now that set of warning bells for me right from the start as, call me precocious, I was familiar with the fact that the Sun and the solar system orbited the galactic centre of the Milky Way from the age of about 12. So this alerted me pretty early on to the fact that this was someone who clearly lacked a scientific background. I'll also just point out that the Sun doesn't "move around the Milky Way Galaxy". The Sun itself remains in pretty much the same place within our galaxy and our galaxy itself rotates - much like a dot painted onto a wind turbine blade, for example.

I won't bore you with the details of the rest of the article and its insistence that 'cosmic rays' (a horrifically imprecise term) make a greater contribution to climate than carbon dioxide does as you can read the article itself but I will highlight just one of the many, many, detailed comments pointing out why this article is nonsense:
#21 on the list of climate change myths ( http://www.skepticalscience.com/argument.php ). See http://www.skepticalscience.com/cosmic-rays-and-global-warming-basic.htm for a rebuttal at basic, intermediate and advanced levels. 
“Hypothetically, an increasing solar magnetic field could deflect galactic cosmic rays, which hypothetically seed low-level clouds, thus decreasing the Earth’s reflectivity and causing global warming. However, it turns out that none of these hypotheticals are occurring in reality, and if cosmic rays were able to influence global temperatures, they would be having a cooling effect.”
Some of the latest research is also reviewed by climate scientists 
at http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2012/12/a-review-of-cosmic-rays-and-climate-a-cluttered-story-of-little-success/ : “There is still no evidence suggesting that [galactic cosmic rays] influence our climate in significant ways.”
The other comments are all well worth reading but the bottom line is this:
  • This evidence is not "new" - it's over a decade old
  • This "evidence" is not evidence - it's got no hard data backing it up and plenty of hard data disproving it
  • The author of the book has not published a single piece of peer reviewed (i.e. verified) research
  • The very basics of "cosmoclimatology" don't match with the most elementary rules of physics
  • There are many more reliable sources out there which debunk the basis of the article which could have been found within five minutes of googling
  • There are about 40,000 different studies on different aspects of climate change which provide evidence of man made global warming and only a handful of scientific studies casting doubt on it
  • The theory expounded in the article is pretty much identical to claiming that the moon is made of cheese in terms of all the evidence available for it
And this, in my opinion, highlights perfectly why blogs, like Lib Dem Voice, are more reliable than the printed press. Because, despite the utterly bizarre, unsubstantiated claims of the article which make me wonder why on Earth Lib Dem Voice ever chose to run it, the fact that there's a comment thread underneath the article allowed it to be swiftly rebutted and evidence posted which proved that the article was wrong and that its conclusions were false.

In contrast, plenty of allegedly "quality" newspapers (such as the Telegraph) regularly run articles which are just as bad in terms of their wilful ignorance of basic scientific principles and which make similarly flawed claims about topics such as climate change - expounding crackpot conspiracy theories without a shred of evidence to back them up. But the difference is that when something like that is printed in the press there are no comment threads and no way for the article to be visibly challenged immediately. So people often read the article and assume it to be true without ever noticing the letters published a week later which actually prove that the article was a tissue of lies and misinformation.

And don't even get me started, incidentally, on the quality of scientific reporting in tabloid newspapers which have included such pearls as claims in the same paper that coffee both causes and cures cancer and the infamous list of "100 reasons why global warming is a myth" which featured the same claim made twice (that wind turbines kill birds) and claims which have nothing to do with whether global warming is true or not (such as that countries like India need to consume fossil fuels in order for their economies to develop) with the few claims actually relevant to the topic all being completely disproved by actual scientists in a series of rebuttals published a couple of days later.

So this is why blogs are much more reliable than the press. You're equally likely to come across articles which are utter nonsense with not a shred of evidence behind them but at least with blogs any unreliable articles will normally be swiftly rebutted in the comment threads whereas when you're reading a newspaper you've got no way of telling whether the story is true or not.

That being said, the one proviso for that rule is that the comment threads themselves need to be open for free and rational debate - for there are quite a few blogs (strangely usually of a right wing persuasion) that refuse to publish comments which disagree with or challenge the viewpoint of the author so it should go without saying that these are just as unreliable as the printed press is.

The simple truth is that no publication, online or offline, is infallible and all of them are likely to publish complete nonsense at times - just like Lib Dem Voice has just done. But fortunately, online publications like Lib Dem Voice at least provide a mechanism for readers to find out easily that an article is complete nonsense whereas offline publications almost never do. Which, of course, is just another reason why newspapers are rapidly going the same way as the dodo. Some might consider that a shame but, to be honest, if anyone misses the fiction you regularly find in newspapers then you're probably better off just buying a book.


Thursday, 14 March 2013

Politics tarnishes the soul

Last night it took me a good few hours to get to sleep and I ended up musing over the various compromises you have to make in politics and the effect it has on you.

I'm not talking about compromises with others on things like policy - that's part and parcel of the whole shebang - but the compromises you make with yourself over your fundamental beliefs.

Take secret courts: two years ago I would never have imagined that I'd ever be able to be a member of a party that supported the kind of assault on civil liberties that the coalition's proposals for secret courts represent. But now it looks like Lib Dem MPs will vote for them and yet I'll wind up staying in the party.

The reason for this is that, while I hate what's happening, I still feel more at home in the Lib Dems than I would in any other party and because I still believe that staying in the Lib Dems is the best way to try and achieve the kind of just, fair and free society which I believe in.

If I stay in and fight I probably won't get somewhere on this issue but in time I might well get to be in a position where I can change things for the better - or be in a position where I can help other people change things. But if I leave I'll lose that chance.

So, quite pragmatically, I've compromised the purity of my principles in exchange for the prospect of being able to change things some day - e.g. for the prospect of some kind of power. Because, let's be honest, that's what politics is about: Power.

You pursue power as a tool you need to change the world and you do so because you truly believe in your vision of the country and the world. But, on the way, far too many politicians, people who started out with the best of intentions, end up compromising what they believe in so often that their principles, their good intentions, get lost and all they have left is the pursuit of power for its own sake.

I never could understand that before, I really couldn't. How could people be so stupid? How could they sell out everything they believed in? How could they become so obsessed with winning whilst forgetting why they wanted to win?

But now I can understand. Because, in effect, that's what I find myself doing. I started off with deeply held convictions and as time has gone on I've had to make tiny compromises: such as staying in the Lib Dems despite many of our MPs breaking their promises on tuition fees. And I've always justified them by thinking, well, it's silly to leave just over this - whereas if I stay then I can keep on fighting the good fight for change from within.

And then I've had to compromise again. And again. Despite the NHS reforms, despite the welfare reforms, despite the gutting of legal aid, despite the bedroom tax and despite secret courts, I've stayed.

What's more, I'm still going to stay. I'm a stubborn bugger and the only way I'm leaving my party is when they carry me out the door.

And sometimes I can convince myself that the bad stuff's not so bad, and that the good things we're doing outweigh the good - but I find it really hard to do so. And every time our parliamentarians take another step away from our principles I find it all that much harder. Hopefully by 2015 I'll have found some very good reasons to believe in what we're doing as otherwise I'll have a tough job convincing anyone to vote for us if I'm not convinced myself.

So, there we go. More compromises. Slowly, slowly, compromising on things I never thought I would. Oh, I still have my beliefs, but the purity of belief I once had has been tarnished, step by step along the way.

Of course, the most successful politicians are the ones who manage to walk that fine line of compromise between principles and the ruthless pursuit of power. And, who knows, someday I might even be one of them.

But I know that even if I do I'll feel soiled by doing so. The more I'm involved with politics the slightly dirtier my soul feels and the less clean my conscience is.

Maybe in the end it'll all be worth it and I'll be in a position where I can do the kind of good that'll clear my conscience. That's what I hope anyway because as it is, while I've never done anything politically that goes directly against my principles, I find myself tacitly giving support to things I don't agree with. And each time I do so it adds another sin, another moral debt, that I have to believe that I'll one day be able to pay off. Which makes it really easy to see how some politicians end up abandoning principles altogether - it's a hell of a lot easier than trying to keep them.

Of course, I don't want to be overly dramatic or self indulgent. I still enjoy politics and fighting for a better world after all. And I trust in my friends to keep me honest. And I'm still certain that the Lib Dems fundamentally represent what I believe in.

It's just harder than it used to be, that's all.

And my soul feels that bit more tarnished.

But that's politics I guess.

I just wish there was a better way.

Monday, 11 March 2013

A soulless Spring Conference

Well, I'm back from the Lib Dem Spring Conference in Brighton and I'm sorry to say that it was probably the most lifeless conference I've ever been to.

There was this malaise hanging over everyone there - the buzz and the energy we've had at previous conferences seemed to have been sucked out.

The reason for this might well be the continued determination of the party leadership to ignore any policy passed by conference and the utter refusal of the leadership to properly engage on the vital issue of secret courts.

The first sign of this came during the Q&A session with Nick Clegg - when questioned about our parliamentarians' support for secret courts he accused critics of being alarmist, set up and knocked down strawman arguments and utterly evaded answering the questions he'd been asked.

In particular I asked him a supplementary question myself (the second time I've asked him an awkward question - sooner or later he's bound to stop picking me) which has been summarised by Alex Marsh (far more eloquently than I asked it) as follows:
"Given this change was not in the Coalition agreement, it was against party policy, and it was against a principle absolutely fundamental to liberalism, why didn’t the party’s MPs vote against the Bill?"
Clegg then spectacularly evaded this by saying that there wasn't a parliamentary majority to block the bill and therefore it couldn't be stopped - despite the fact that my question was clearly about why our MPs didn't vote against it even if they were in a minority. In fact, by Clegg's logic, we should have voted for the Iraq War because there was already a majority of MPs in favour of it.

In fact, the Q&A became quite rowdy with even some minor heckling breaking out - clearly I wasn't the only one immensely dissatisfied with the leadership over this.

And then we had the emergency motion reiterating our opposition to secret courts itself where the supporters of the leadership accused the membership of living in an 'Alice in Wonderland' world and where the brilliant Jo Shaw dramatically resigned in her speech proposing the motion.

The motion was overwhelmingly passed but I doubt it will  make any difference given that the leadership ignored the last motion on the issue - just as it did on the NHS, tuition fees, welfare reform, legal aid, et al.

And in the meantime we've lost two incredibly talented members of the party due to the failure of the leadership to listen on secret courts.

The emergency motions debates themselves were also overshadowed by a conference committee stitch up the day before which meant that only the first and third place emergency motions as voted by conference reps were selected for debate while the second most popular emergency motion - one on the economy by the Social Liberal Forum - was rejected after the leadership insisted to conference committee that it needed more time to be adequately debated than was available.

This wouldn't seem so suspicious were it not for a similar SLF motion on the economy having been blocked from being on the agenda at last year's spring conference and an SLF amendment to another motion on the economy being rejected at last year's autumn conference in favour of a more extreme amendment which was sponsored by fewer people - the reason behind this being that the leadership knew they could defeat this amendment and so picked it to give the false illusion of a real debate when there was none.

Bearing all this in mind, it's not really surprising that most people at conference seemed to just be going through the motions - the agenda was insipid and lots of people I talked to remarked on how lifeless the conference overall felt.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed meeting lots of people I hand't seen in ages - as well as attending the last night of conference glee club and doing a bit of shopping at the brilliant Lib Dem Image stall selling Lib Dem merchandise.

And, for what it's worth, I'll still be going to autumn conference in Glasgow - but if the leadership don't start listening to the membership soon then I can be fairly confidence that the autumn conference will turn into a bloodbath. Members have just worked their fingers to the bone to win Eastleigh but I doubt they'll campaign energetically for the party again if all they get in return is betrayal over fundamental issues of Lib Dem principle like secret courts - and indeed Mark Thompson has already pledged not to campaign for any Lib Dem MP who votes for secret courts and I am now joining him in making that pledge.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

We should ban Lib Dem conference

Personally I love Lib Dem conferences. They're great fun, I get to meet up with loads of friends and there's always more interesting things to do than I have time for. They are, without a doubt, the highlights of my year and are fixed in my diary as soon as the dates are announced with as much certainty as if they were carved into stone. So don't get me wrong on my opinion on conference.

But nevertheless, I'm coming to the conclusion that we should just scrap it all together. Let me tell you why.

You see, the thing is that the core function of conference is to make policy for the party. It is sovereign in this aspect - it is the members of the Liberal Democrats who have the power to make policy through their elected conference representatives. And this is what sets us apart from other parties - we are the only major British political party where members all get to have an equal say in policy making. Even Nick Clegg has no greater say in what becomes party policy than an ordinary member does.

That's the theory anyway.

Because the reality is that on tuition fees, on the NHS reforms, on the welfare reforms, on legal aid reforms and on secret courts, conference representatives have done the party and its principles and its members proud by voting for proper Liberal Democrat policy on each of these issues.

But that didn't make a blind bit of difference because on each of those issues the party's MPs and the leadership went right ahead and ignored party policy.

Each time they had an excuse - we're in coalition and we have to compromise to cut the deficit etc, etc. And each of those excuses, however feeble and pathetic they might have seemed, did at least have a valid point behind them which had to be acknowledged even if members disagreed with that point and there was always at least a large minority of members which agreed with the leadership.

But now, on secret courts, a fundamental attack on civil liberties and basic principles of justice, the party leadership has run out of legitimate excuses.

Virtually the entire party, apart from parliamentarians, is united in opposition to the government's plans to create a situation where one side in cases on such important issues as the UK's torture of its own citizens has the opportunity to whisper in secret in the judge's ear. And, what's more, this was not in the coalition agreement, is not necessary to help with the financial crisis and it runs utterly contrary to the fundamental principles of liberty expressed in the party's constitution.

And the party made its views clear at conference in passing a motion utterly opposed to secret courts - and this despite a shameful attempt to rig the debate by the only people called to speak, bar one, being pro-secret courts parliamentarians.

Despite this, however, all but 7 Lib Dem MPs voted last week in favour of secret courts in parliament, striking down amendments from the Lords which would have at least improved the situation slightly.

This makes things utterly clear: there can no longer be any pretence that our parliamentary party gives a damn about policy made at conference.

And that isn't just a betrayal of the party's democratic traditions, it's also a betrayal of thousands of activists up and down the country who work the equivalent of unpaid part-time jobs for the party in order to get our MPs elected in the first place.

So that's why I think we should ban Lib Dem conference. If policy it makes is now destined to be utterly ignored, without any consequences, by our parliamentarians then there's no longer any point to it other than as a figleaf of hollowed out democratic trappings for the party to boast about and as a paying audience to clap on cue at speeches by the leadership.

And I for one would rather see conference dead than see that vision of mockery of it come to pass.

When I go to conference Brighton this weekend I'll be going there for the first time as someone utterly disillusioned with what conference is meant to be about. And I'll be doing everything in my power to hold our leadership to account for their betrayal.

Because the sad reality of our party now is that, for all the talk of phony divisions between left and right, between social liberals and orange bookers, there is now only one real division in our party: between the leadership and the members.