Monday 11 January
In an article on the latest initiatives by the government to improve Scottish education, the writer and journalist David Torrance observes: 'Policy debate in Scotland deems so much to be off limits that coming up with something genuinely radical is almost impossible’. He makes a good point. Although the SNP and Labour snipe at each other over the effectiveness of Curriculum for Excellence, both signed up to its basic principles: it was initiated by Labour and continued by subsequent SNP administrations. Great play is made of the claim that Scottish education is essentially a partnership and proceeds through consultation and consensus. What this means in practice is that there is little scope for original ideas which challenge orthodoxy.
This position is reinforced by the way the major institutions of Scottish education operate. Education Scotland, the national curriculum body, the Scottish Qualifications Authority, which runs the examination system, and the General Teaching Council, which controls entry to the profession, are all essentially bureaucratic organisations which devote more attention to procedures than to principles. The main teachers’ organisation, the Educational Institute of Scotland, which in its early days was a force for innovation, has become a conservative trade union, focused mainly on salaries and conditions of service. Add all this together and you have an educational system in which the leading players talk a lot about reform but are not committed to it in practice. There are just too many vested interests at stake.
Tuesday 12 January
A study which claimed to find that older people have difficulty in detecting and understanding sarcasm has, predictably, attracted some sarcastic reporting. The research, published in the journal 'Developmental Psychology’, and led by a professor at Aberdeen University, involved 116 participants (36 of them older than 65) being presented with a series of videos and written stories and invited to explain them. In one case a woman is engaged with domestic tasks and she asks a man who is sitting reading a book, 'Are you busy? I know you’ve got a lot on’. The study concluded that older subjects were less able to decode indicators of sarcasm than their younger counterparts.
The Guardian’s comments on the research must have made uncomfortable reading for those who carried it out. 'Obviously, it is sensible to draw conclusions about old people based on the behaviour of 36 of them. And clearly, when you’re being tested for sarcasm-awareness you respond to filmed examples of it in the same way that you would respond in real life (even if some of the videos...are unconvincingly acted by Australians).’ The writer concludes, with tongue firmly in cheek: 'To me, this study looks utterly robust...and given my extensive training in statistics and psychology, I am unlikely to be wrong'.
Wednesday 13 January
Is there a tendency among some of those who are responsible for upholding the law to begin to think that they themselves are above the law? I ask this question after listening to a radio programme ('File on Four’) which investigated allegations against Greater Manchester Police, specifically against its Professional Standards Branch. Several officers, some with many years’ service, claimed that they had been subject to victimisation after they had lodged complaints about their treatment. One had served a prison sentence and was still pursuing the matter through the courts. Two outside forces were conducting inquiries into what had been happening.
The chief constable of Greater Manchester Police gave a careful 'political’ response to the allegations, stating that he could not prejudge the outcome of the inquiries. He was not asked if he found it disturbing that there was clearly a deep level of mistrust relating to some officers in the Professional Standards Branch. Nor was he asked about the adequacy of recruitment and training for particular responsibilities.
The evidence presented in the programme was not sufficient to enable listeners to form a definite judgement about the disturbing reports. I was left with three thoughts. Firstly, it must be demoralising to have to work in a climate in which you cannot trust your colleagues. Secondly, the prevailing atmosphere cannot be conducive to providing an effective service to the public. And thirdly, given its recent problems, how would Police Scotland emerge from a similar investigation?
Thursday 14 January
Since its introduction in 2005 the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act has allowed increased access to data held by government and other public bodies. The current legislation is under review and many organisations would find it convenient if the rules were tightened to make it more difficult for members of the public to find out what is going on. It might be thought that universities, which are concerned with the generation of knowledge and the pursuit of truth, would be stout defenders of the right to know. After all, many research projects depend on university staff being able to gain access to information held by other bodies.
It seems, however, that the leaders of the Russell Group of 24 elite universities have no qualms about operating double standards. They are seeking exemption from the FoI legislation on the grounds that they are private institutions, not public bodies – this despite the fact that UK universities receive four billion pounds each year from taxpayers. Perhaps the desire for secrecy can be explained, in part at least, by the fact that the existing legislation has allowed for some embarrassing revelations, such as the size of vice-chancellors’ salaries, the amount of money received by some institutions from arms manufacturers, and the scale of cheating among students.
Keen observers of the direction of higher education will be disappointed, but not surprised, by the Russell Group’s stance. For some decades now there has been an alarming 'corporate’ drift in the way universities are run. This is evident in the proliferation of senior managers, in commercial agreements with businesses (sometimes with oppressive contractual constraints on the publication of research findings), and in the devaluation of the work of front-line teaching staff.
Friday 15 January
The newspapers contain lengthy obituaries of the actor and director Alan Rickman who has died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 69. I first became aware of what a fine actor he was when I watched him playing the part of the oleaginous Obadiah Slope in the 1982 BBC production of Anthony Trollope’s 'Barchester Towers’. He used his wonderful voice to great effect in conveying the transition in the character from ambitious wheedling to rejected suitor. His portrayal of the Sheriff of Nottingham in the send-up of the Robin Hood legend ('Robin Hood Prince of Thieves’) was also memorable. I still recall his snarling delivery of the injunction: 'And keep the stiches neat’, when he required the attention of a doctor after one of his encounters with Robin’s merry men. It is a line worth remembering in the event of having to undergo surgery.