Monday, 7 November 2016

Reasoning, Writing & Arithmetic - Brexit, Education & 'the Three Rs'

The more I see and hear the debates around Brexit (and associated discussions of immigration, and so on), the more I feel like we're not doing well enough in a vital aspect of education (not specifically us, but society in general). It's become clear to me that one if the most important subjects we need to teach to every child is what might be broadly called 'philosophy', but more specifically critical thinking and logic, along with the concepts of research and evidence (and how to apply them in supporting and scrutinising argument).

We've all seen what's happened - in a civilised society with universal education, it should not be possible for so many people to be so easily fooled by stuff that doesn't stand up to any scrutiny. Too many people just do not have the basic skills in this area that they should have. I think we need to address that much more effectively in our education system - it's more important in preparing people for life than almost anything else that our children could learn.

The recent court judgement in favour of Article 50 having to be triggered by parliament also highlights a serious deficiency in our education about some of the most basic knowledge that any citizen should have about the country where they live and how its systems work. Again. The same issue was shown up by the reaction to the realisation that the EU referendum result was not in itself a legally binding decision. There was nothing specifically 'anti-Brexit' about either thing, of course - both are simply a reflection of how our democracy works. It's blindingly obvious, though, that many people simply do not understand it. It isn't a very complicated system, and it is as it is for very good reasons (the executive not being able to set itself above the democratic institutions or the law), but people have just never been taught about it, so they don't know.

It is all too easy for those of us who are strongly engaged with politics and the democratic process to forget how little of it we learned at school, and to assume that everyone knows the basics (or even to make the mistake of thinking people are 'stupid' or 'wilfully ignorant' because they don't - very bad mistakes to make). It certainly doesn't help when the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nigel Farage, two people who know exactly how the system works (and who play games with it constantly), give strength to those who don't understand by making outrageous accusations of wrong-doing against people they know full when are simply doing their constitutional and legal duty in exactly the way they are supposed to. Everyone should beware of such deliberate manipulation, but sadly it is the case that they clearly aren't. And then there's the media, and certain sections of it who feed constant half-truths at best to an unsuspecting public - people need to scrutinise information carefully, but it's becoming increasingly apparent that many lack the basic skills for doing so, and aren't even aware that they don't know what they need to to avoid being fooled by those promoting a specific message through emotive false propaganda.

This last point is the most fundamental. Yes, we do need to teach people about 'politics' and the functionings of our legal and democratic systems - it doesn't need to be complicated, and almost everyone will have the capacity to understand the basic concepts without too much difficulty. It goes beyond that, though, to the basic skills of logic and reasoning, and the ability to construct and scrutinise argument using research, evidence and so on. These are very, very basic skills for life that our education system does not seem to have been treating with the level of importance that it should have. There have been some moves to improve things, I know, but I am concerned that not only have we not yet succeeded but that the current government's obsession with taking education backwards endangers what progress we have made.

We often talk of the 'three Rs', and emphasise the importance of them from day one of school. We don't, of course, sit kids down immediately and start teaching them quadratic equations and the compete works of Shakespeare - we start at a very basic level, often leading them through some of the very basic stuff with structured 'play' and 'activities', and so on, and of course that is right. However, we need to be treating the idea of 'Reasoning' with the same level of attention and importance. Being able to think logically is every bit as critical to success in any aspect of life as being able to count, read and write. Reading and writing, of course, are very much two sides of the same coin, so when we talk of the 'three Rs' we should be including those three central core issues, including 'Reasoning'.

Many skills of logic and reasoning are taught in schools, but without being identified as such. Subjects such as Science and History are (or should be!) founded on such things. At the moment, though, we are, I think, all too often doing things the wrong way around - at a very young age, for example, we introduce the idea of 'the past' to children, and start to teach them a little bit about it. That is fine in itself, but later on that little bit we have taught them becomes far less relevant to even their study of that subject than the idea of reasoning, and the essential skills of assessing evidence and making logical judgements based upon it. That is where I think we need to start to a much greater extent - teaching children the skills of reasoning that they can develop and naturally apply later on, rather than just teaching them a few little bits of random 'knowledge'.

'Knowledge' itself is a wonderful thing, of course, but it's really far less useful and important than the ability to think. That is what cuts across every facet of life in education and beyond - not just learning (though learning is itself important) but thinking. Alongside thinking and reasoning inevitably come the basic skills of research and processing of information, and that is massively important in its own right. To put it bluntly, again using a historical example, learning the names and dates of the Kings and Queens of England is really of no practical value whatsoever in life. Understanding how to find out that information, how to assess the sources giving that information, and how to construct an argument based around that information and its context is what people really need in life. Our education system should be geared from the beginning to give people those skills.

Now having mentioned also teaching the 'knowledge' about our political system, though that is less important than having the skills to find and assess that information (since in the days of the interweb it is freely available to anyone), it's important to say a word about 'political bias'. It is absolutely imperative that we do not have any kind of political bias in our education system. I can think of little that has sent a bigger chill down my spine than the recent call from a UKIP leadership candidate for UKIP members to go into teaching to educate children the UKIP way from an early age. That works both ways, of course, and in no way would I advocate teaching children according to any political agenda, including my own. It is all about teaching children HOW to think, not teaching them WHAT to think - that distinction is critical. There is always a danger of an individual teacher, teaching the concepts of our political system and perhaps of the basic political ideologies, to make a personal 'slip up' and allow their own opinions to show. Teachers, for all of their skill and dedication, are still human, and can make human mistakes inadvertently. That perhaps becomes less of a dangerous issue, though, if from day one of their schooling we have taught children to develop the basic skills of reasoning, logic and argument construction and scrutiny. By the time we get to any kind of education about 'politics' they will already have the reasoning skills to assess any such information for themselves and to come to their own conclusions.

I should also say that I am certainly not a teacher, although I did spend many years working in educational technical support, and was involved with discussions on the basis of research about teaching and learning methods (and enhancing teaching and learning through space and facility design). I don't pretend to be able to tell people how to teach, and nor would I want to. We do need to understand, though, that the old 'chalk and talk' methodology of sending out a stream of information for people to 'learn' has been found repeatedly to really not work very well. What works more effectively are things like collaborative group learning, and encouraging people to work things out for themselves rather than just being force-fed 'knowledge'. This is something that has become increasingly applied at all levels of education (and again this governments regressive educational agenda worries me on that score), and it's exactly the kind of thing we need to understand when we're talking about children learning to reason from a very young age.

At the moment it's very clear that too many adults do not understand some of the most basic aspects of reasoning and research, and assessing evidence logically, and so on. In fact, I'm going to go so far as to say that Brexit is a huge illustration of that - many people have made an important decision about our entire future on the basis of 'arguments' that don't stand up to scrutiny, 'evidence' that is misrepresented or even entirely fabricated, and an emotional appeal to their feelings of general dissatisfaction that has led them to place the blame for the problems they see at the door of a conveniently supplied scapegoat who isn't actually to blame. Of course I freely confess my own 'bias' on the issue of the EU, but the issue remains the same - many of the 'arguments' being presented are not based in evidence, logic and reason, and those presenting them don't even seem to realise that.

It shouldn't be too hard to make the kind of change I am talking about here in our education system. Children have enquiring minds quite naturally - we simply need to encourage them to use them, and teach them the skills to use them effectively. We should certainly not consider that such things are only within the capabilities of the more 'academic' - it really isn't particularly complicated at all, but it is a habit that people should get into at a very early age. It is not, for example, only within the capabilities of an academically gifted teenager to understand a basic concept like 'the plural of anecdote is not evidence' - children of a much younger age, even those not destined for a life of university academia, are quite capable of grasping such and idea with a bit of explanation. All it needs for them to develop the good habit of reasoning is for them to be taught how to do it early on.

This is why it needs to be put right at the core of our entire education system and educational thinking, right from day one. That is why I think we need to think of those essential 'three Rs' as being Reasoning, Writing and Arithmetic. We have seen the dangers of a civilised society abandoning reason and embracing knee-jerk emotionalism led by political propaganda. We need to make sure that it can never, ever happen again. We need to do so without ever using the education system to teach people what to think. We do, however, need to make sure that everyone leaves education, at whatever age and with whatever qualifications (or lack thereof), having learned HOW to think. How to think for themselves. How to reason. How to research and understand. How to apply logic. How not to be fooled by those with a specific agenda of trying to fool them.

We currently place an emphasis on even the least academically able children leaving school with the basic numeracy and literacy skills to function in society. We need to add basic reasoning skills to that. Instead of making sure all children, as far as possible, end up with a basic qualification in Maths and English, we need to make sure that they end up with a basic qualification in Maths, English and 'Critical Thinking'. We need to gear our education system to that strong and emphasis on reasoning, start it from the very beginning, and keep it up all the way through, in exactly the same way as we do with numeracy and literacy. In my opinion, reasoning is every bit as important a life skill as being able to add things up and write things down.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Orgreave, Coal and Steel (David!).

This government has taken a decision not to investigate what happened at 'the Battle of Orgreave'. Apparently nobody actually died or spent much time locked up, so it's not important to understand the truth. I'm not surprised by this government's attitude, unfortunately, given the kind of dictatorial, authoritarian direction it has lurched in, and given the fact that some of those who might come in for criticism are some of their great mythological heroes. I use the term 'mythological' deliberately, of course, since their heroism may well not be based on an entirely true reflection of reality but on stories about how the great forefathers (and mothers) overcame the pure evil of the socialist dragon. Sadly, that seems to be where we are - that same kind of polarised 'us versus them' politics which created the miners strike and the events at Orgreave.

I disagree with them very strongly. The shadow of the violence Orgreave has been hanging over us for far too long. It has been the subject of accusations, counter-accusations, stories, myths, rumours and whispers for decades, and we need to know the truth. We need to understand exactly what happened, and exactly why it happened, not just so that we can all 'move on', but so that we can make absolutely sure that we never again see such a situation. In today's political climate in the UK, I think that's more important than ever.

Of course, it's not just about the actions of the police on that day itself, and whether they were proportionate and well thought out. We now know for certain from Hillsborough (and we didn't know before, though we may have suspected - I don't buy the defence of aiming cheap 'well if it's so important why didn't you investigate when you were in power' comments aimed at Labour in particular - the Hillsborough investigation changes everything) just how dishonest that particular police force could be around that time when it came to covering its own backside, and we need to know if the same people (or others) were doing the same. It is also about the government of the day, and how they were using the police force. That's long been the source of comment and speculation, and the evidence for that should be properly considered - abuse of state power is one of the most serious charges that can be levelled at any government, and we need to know if that did indeed go on (and whether individuals broke any laws in relation to that, of course). It's about the 'other side' too, and what were really the plans and actions of Arthur Scargill, the NUM and the groups of miners themselves on that day - again, the source of much rumour and speculation (and elements within that union had certainly been guilty of serious crimes elsewhere in their pursuit of the strike, and allegedly in their pursuit of bringing down the government too).

So many stories. So many rumours. So many whispers. We need to get to the truth. It is important, even all these years later. If we don't examine history, and examine all of the evidence, we can't learn from it. If we don't learn from it, we risk making the same mistakes again, and in terms of entrenched and bitter dispute leading to violence potentially between the government, police and organised parts of the population that is a risk we should do everything we can to minimise. A light needs to be shone into all of the dark corners of what happened and why. We need to know. A proper, full investigation is absolutely essential, in my opinion, despite the many painful memories and ghosts from the past that it will inevitably raise. We need to deal with all of that once and for all. There should be truth. There should be justice. For everyone.

Thinking back to that time of the strike, when I were but a lad (not living in a mining community myself, but not far away from many of them, and not many generations away from miners in my own family either), my memories are quite vivid. Not just seeing what had happened at Orgreave, but the whole issue of the strike itself. In many ways it was a very important part of the formation of my political opinion - watching the physical battles of the picket line, and the political battles pitched between shouting, ranting elements taking the lead on both 'sides' of the debate. It wasn't just the miners strike itself, though that was a particularly stark example - it was that whole period of unrest and upheaval, from the winter of discontent through the strike, pit and works closures, and so on. All the time it all seemed so wrong to me, as young as I was. Not 'wrong' because 'evil' was standing against 'good', or because 'the worker' was standing against 'the establishment', or because 'thugs' were standing against 'the forces of law', or whatever, but because it seemed to me that nobody had any real desire to get together and sort it out sensibly instead of just 'smashing' their 'opponent'. I found it all so frustrating (as I still do).

Throughout that time it seemed to me there was one solid, sensible voice of reason. One constant presence with the practical sense and the courage to stand between the sides (metaphorically and politically, at least!) and just say 'hang on a minute', so to speak. One person who actually wanted to sort out a real solution instead of just trying to 'win' a war of destruction that wasn't doing anybody any good. This is what forged the way I thought politically at that young age (I was a young teenager by the time of the miners strike), and what still essentially shapes much of my political identity and thinking today (though I have not always been a party member, and not even always voted for the same party).

Many Liberals, and Liberal Democrats in particular, will cite as their 'political heroes', or as those who brought them to Liberalism and the party, as the likes of Paddy, or Charles, or even Nick. All of those are good answers - it depends on when and how you came to such things, of course. For me, though I'm not given to 'hero worship at all, my big formative influence will always be that quiet voice of reason, standing up for common sense when all around were preaching the kind of entrenched language of war that ultimately led to appalling situations like the battle of Orgreave. Indeed, it saddens me a little that he is one leading Liberal figure that the party does not offer as an option to be pictured on membership cards, despite having been such an important and influential part of forming and shaping the party we have today.

Thinking about the whole Orgreave and miners strike situation this morning, I found this quote:

"During the mining dispute we have seen the Thatcher way at its very worst. She appointed as Chairman of the National Coal Board an elderly American company doctor whose reputation at British Steel had been made by cutting back rather, than building up.

She has effectively torn up the Plan for Coal and replaced it with nothing except a general sense of hostility to what is one of this country’s major assets. She has set up a confrontation which suits her Marxist opponent Arthur Scargill very well. She has allowed attitudes to harden on both sides.

Then this week she has the nerve to talk about the strike going on for a year and demands ‘victory’ over the ‘enemy.’ It may be the Thatcher way but it is not the way to conduct industrial relations - and it is deeply damaging to the national economy.

There is a better way. I want to use this occasion to make a .firm proposal to break the deadlock. It has three elements and it will require the recall of Parliament next week, which is perfectly possible since there are no party conferences.

The first element is that Mr. McGregor should step down immediately. He is now an impediment to a settlement. His replacement should be someone like Eric Varley who has the personal skills and the knowledge of the coal industry. The fact that he is not ‘one of hers’ is a positive advantage. A new Chairman of the NCB is the first pre-requisite to break the log-jam.

The second element is the establishment of a new Community Rehabilitation Programme, funded by the Government. It should undertake the environmental restoration of run down mining communities to create worthwhile jobs for former miners and to get the local neighbourhood thriving again. This Programme would be loosely modelled on the excellent Villiers scheme in British Steel but will concentrate particularly on the physical environment.

This scheme should be jointly managed by the NCB and the NUM but there is one big IF. There must be a ballot on the coal strike. The Alliance will put a short Bill to the House of Commons allowing 10% of miners, to trigger a national ballot. This trigger will be pointed at the head of Mr. Scargill and his dictatorial ways. As the Yorkshire working miners’ letter said ‘he is only a servant of the union.’ We must enable them to tell him what to do rather than the other way round.

I call on the Government and the TUC to put all their weight behind this scheme to set the coal industry on a new course. It is their duty to save the adversaries from themselves."

David Steel, Liberal Party Leader's Speech, Bournemouth 1984.

If only they had listened.

London - the elephant in the Heathrow room.

As we engage in yet another debate over the possible expansion of Heathrow airport, once again the public discussion seems to miss the great big London-shaped elephant in the room. It's a shape that hangs over many of our economic and infrastructure debates in the UK. In this particular case, the plain fact is that the UK does not have a shortage of airport capacity. It really doesn't - there's plenty to spare at the moment, all over the country. Apart from around London. At what point do we have to start asking ourselves about addressing the problem, instead of trying to put short-term sticking plasters over some of the most obvious symptoms?

Now I'm quite sure many reading this will be expecting 'the usual attack on London from the regions' - you know the kind of thing: Everyone in London is rich (just look at the house prices), London gets everything, they have all the wealth while we suffer, they took our coal and left us with nothing, and so on. That's not the point at all - London is suffering, and Londoners (those who live there and those who work there) are suffering. London is hideously overpopulated, and growing, and shows no signs of growing at a rate that is in any way sustainable. On top of that, many people from around London travel in to the city to work there every day. The infrastructure (not just transport - little things like water supply too) is horrendously overloaded, and it's getting worse - we keep pumping in large sums of money to build new infrastructure where we can, though there's little space to do it, but it's nowhere near enough, and it never will be. At what point do we start thinking about addressing the problem from the other end, and actually reducing demand?

This isn't the first time I've touched on this topic. Last year I wrote a blog post about moving parliament, and the associated state functions, out from London (specifically to somewhere around Liverpool), partly to begin to address this issue. We need to go further than that, though - we need to start encouraging businesses and employers to move too (and where they move, people will follow, or at least stay where they are instead of moving to London). In the modern world of technology, the necessity for everything to be physically located in one place so that messages can be passed and physical meetings can be held is a thing of the past. We need to utilise the opportunities offered by such things as telephones, the internet, video conferencing, and so on - we need to stop thinking in terms of putting things together for convenience, and start thinking in terms of spreading them out as widely as possible.

Not only can we now spread things out more, we really have to. London cannot continue as it has done in the past. It isn't just a problem for London, of course, and it is right, I think, to note that the draw of London's centralised economic activity is bad news for the whole of the UK. As the London area suffers from overpopulation, pollution, strained infrastructure, work-life balances dependent on hours of commuting, and so on, so the rest of the UK is suffering from lack of employment (and particularly of well-paid employment), empty housing and stagnant (at best, in some cases) housing markets, crumbling infrastructure that is too poor to attract inward investment, etc., etc.. We have to start to address the issue, and start to rebalance the geographical inequality in our economic activity and (therefore) our population. What we are doing now can't keep on - it is failing everyone.

Some are suggesting that the HS2 project will help by shortening travelling times to London, but I'm not convinced about that at all. I think it's almost looking at the issue slightly backwards. It is expanding the effective circumference of the centre instead of seeking to decentralise. The big danger in doing that is that it falls into the same category as expanding Heathrow - it perhaps addresses symptoms a little for a while, but actually overall provides an expansion of London capacity that increases its draw and increases its economic and population dominance. OK, it might mean that people can, in effect, 'commute' to London from further afield, but it does nothing to stop them having to do so. That's where the problem lies - we need to stop so much of our economic activity, and therefore our population, from being so reliant upon activity in and connection to London.

Now one 'solution' that might have an impact is Brexit, of course. It might have an impact by moving chunks of our financial services sector out of the UK altogether. I'm going to suggest that that would not be a good thing, though. Actually, 'the city' is one of those things that it makes most sense to leave exactly where it is. That doesn't mean that it needs to all stay where it is, of course, but it does raise an important point that I should mention about now. What I'm talking about isn't somehow 'de-populating' the capital city and leaving it to collapse as an abandoned shell of its former self. Far from it. It is always going to be a big city, and always going to be a big centre of economic activity, and always going to have a big population as a result - there's nothing wrong with that, as long as it is sustainable. As I pointed out earlier, this isn't an attack on London at all. What we need to do, though, is create a situation where it is sustainable - where it isn't continuing to try to expand, and continuing to draw people and activity away from other places, and where it doesn't constantly need more and more infrastructure to cope with ever increasing demand. We certainly don't want to tear down London and rip up its gold-paved streets, but we do need to find a viable and sustainable economic (and therefore population) solution for the whole of the UK, including London itself.

As a slight aside, just let me briefly address the question of immigration here, and any suggestion that anything is the fault of 'them immigrants' (which it isn't), 'immigration' (which it isn't), and any suggestion that 'Britain is full' (which it isn't). That kind of nonsense only deflects discussion away from the real problem of centralisation. We have immigration, we need immigration, and immigration is a very positive thing both economically and culturally. We aren't 'full' - in fact, we could very easily build several more cities the size of London in space that is currently occupied by sheep, not to mention the area currently covered by golf courses. We could, but the situation of overpopulation, pollution and failing infrastructure would probably eventually be the same in all of them - it is that which we need to address, not the marginal effects of some people moving to the UK while some other people leave. It's a complete red herring that only serves to block real discussion about real solutions.

As I have mentioned, I believe we ought to start by moving parliament - not only does it make a practical start, though a small one, but it sends a clear and powerful message of intent, and that is important. It tells the world, the regions, and London itself that we're actually beginning to take this problem seriously instead of pretending that sticking plasters like Heathrow expansion will solve everything (or anything, for that matter). We have to go beyond that though, obviously, and the starting point has to be a far more serious attempt to invest in infrastructure in 'the regions', even though we know that in the short term some of it might not be 'necessary' according to current and projected (projected on the assumption of nothing much changing) demand.

That is so important. We need to build the infrastructure to support the things that we need to move away from the capital, and we need to build them before they announce that they are moving (because if we don't, they won't - it is that simple). This is something that the UK has been disastrously bad at, and has in fact taken far, far less seriously than the European Union - we should really see the number of EU funded regional infrastructure projects in the UK as a damning indictment of our own failure for generations. This costs money, of course, but we need to invest, and we need to see our investment in terms of something much more fundamental than 'connection speed to London' (from places that can be easily connected to London, while the rest of the UK still gets largely ignored).

To take a specific example (chosen because I know it well), the Swansea Bay region has a population of well over 500,000. It is currently connected to the rest of the UK by a motorway that has only 2 lanes in each direction for much of its length, and some of the tightest bends on the whole UK network (with the speed restrictions dictated by such things) - it is not enough, and currently there are only plans to try to improve a small part (the part which also most badly effects Cardiff). There is an international airport reasonably close by, West of Cardiff, but no decent road or rail links to get to it. The railway line is due to be upgraded to electric over the coming years, but it still won't get you to an airport other than the inevitable Heathrow (and in order to get to Heathrow, as many people currently have to do from Swansea, you also have to pass another international airport at Bristol).

Now the city of Swansea itself is by no means the worst place in the UK for such infrastructure (North Wales doesn't even have a motorway at all, which is frankly shameful), but what we need to be asking ourselves is why businesses would relocated parts of their operation to Swansea from London, or choose Swansea instead of London and its immediate neighbours? What are the push and pull factors in such decisions, and how can we begin to rebalance them? I'm going to suggest that infrastructure is a pretty big part of that picture - the ability to reliably get people and goods in and out, not just to London but also to the world - but it's not the only one (training and education for the workforce is another, but I'm not going to claim to know all the answers, of course).

Then we need to be asking the same questions about other towns in the region, and other regions. How do we create the circumstances for a more viable and sustainable distribution of economic activity and population around the UK (the whole of the UK). We need to do it not just for the benefit of 'the regions'; but for the benefit of London itself - it's important to realise that, and it's a point I think needs to be made again and again. Regional infrastructure funding is good for London. Regional policy that attracts economic activity and employment away from London is good for London, and good for the people of London. We need to understand that, and we need to think about issues like the proposed expansion at Heathrow in those terms.

At the moment the Heathrow debate, and the whole airport expansion debate, is being dominated by the idea that we need to expand airport capacity in the South East because the South East is where all the demand for it is. We need to think about the problem differently, and from the opposite angle, and realise that the real problem is actually that the demand itself is too centralised in the South East, and that that is unsustainable. Each bit of additional capacity we build there is only going to serve to increase that centralised demand in the long term, while reducing it elsewhere around the country (where we already have an issue of over-capacity and a lack of demand, which is only going to get worse if we don't address it).

And that is a problem with our traditional way of thinking. It isn't 'joined up' - it's all too often been seen as something of a 'battle' for funding between London (which 'needs' the investment because of the overpopulation) and 'the regions' (which supposedly doesn't need it so urgently, because it doesn't have the same problem of overpopulation). We need to look at it in a new way, and realise that the best thing for London is to invest in the regions, as it is the best thing for the regions too. Investing in new London infrastructure might alleviate pressure temporarily, but in the longer term it only serves to make the problem worse by reducing the impetus for people and things to think about going elsewhere.

The best way to solve the long term problem of demand exceeding infrastructure in London is to begin to gradually reduce that demand, and the best way to do that is to invest in the infrastructure that can begin to draw demand away from the London area. We should be working together on that - it's in everybody's long term interests, and especially in London's.