Saturday, 20 August 2011

When only the best will do.....

Unsurprisingly, this year's A-Level results have created an intense pressure for university places, before the fees go up next year. Although the proportion of pupils getting As or A*s, at 27%, is only slightly up from last year, as far as getting a place on the course of your choice is concerned I think you could be forgiven for thinking that anything less isn't worth the paper it's written on. At any rate, it's a far cry from the 1960s, when I took mine, and the top 27% would've included both As and Bs and the top 2% of Cs as well. And an overall pass rate of about 98%, I think has to raise questions about the validity of an exam which hardly anyone now fails.

Not that I'm knocking the achievements of this year's A level students. Thinking back, I remember two years of solid hard slog to get there, wondering at times whether it was all going to be worth it. Both French and German - the two subjects which gained me my As - have undergone a decline in popularity over the last decade, despite the fact that the students of today no longer have to sit through the interminable study of set texts which plagued me when I did mine.

As far as the question of "soft" options go, this is another question which yet again rears its ugly head. The then-new A level General Studies wasn't counted as worth anything by Universities, and so I didn't bother to take it, opting instead for a couple of now-defunct S-Levels. If subjects such as Media Studies are to be denigrated as not "proper" A-levels, then to my mind that is the fault of the examining boards for not devising a syllabus which is exacting enough, and the fault of the Universities for giving them a parity in the points allocation. Whatever happened to the proviso that you had to have a track record of excellence in the subject you were applying to study?

There again, the tendency of Universities to broaden the scope of degree offerings has contributed a lot to the 'Micky Mouse Degree' accusations. In 1980 I went to Polytechnic part-time for three years and got a BA in Librarianship. As a primarily 'vocational' qualification (which my employer declined to pay for, incidentally) it hardly rates alongside an Oxbridge Honours in Classics. But although it didn't bring me fame and fortune (or even an increase in salary) I'm kinda proud of my achievement. And in an educational system which seems these days to be increasingly focused on mediocrity, I guess that's reason enough.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Rain stopped play

I must admit that I was a little bit apprehensive about taking Raggs out for her evening walks these last few nights. Although Coventry seems to have escaped the rioting and looting as such, the speed with which it had spread had taken everyone I think by surprise.

Tuesday night, the local Police were out and about visibly in force in their patrol cars, evidently taking no chances. They'd advised parents to keep their kids indoors and off the streets, and I certainly didn't see as many as I'd have expected to on a pleasant summer evening during the school holidays. Last night there seemed to be somewhat fewer Police around, but it was just as quiet - almost spookily so as darkness fell and it started raining around 8.30. I came across a couple of groups of local people clearing up litter in their streets - not vandalism debris, just ordinary stuff - but an example perhaps of how the tide of public opinion is turning against the mindless destruction and how people are determined to 'do their bit' to counteract it? Maybe.

Undoubtedly, the rioters and looters had been on a roll everywhere: they must've thought they were unstoppable. That's largely fizzled out: now heavily outnumbered by the Police on the streets, rained on, and with most of the public against them, I can't see enough momentum building up again to cause anything like as much trouble as we saw on the news at the weekend.

We can't of course all protect our homes and businesses like the magnificent way in which the Sikhs in Southall did it: you don't mess with those guys! We rely on the Police, and then the Courts to do their bit. Following the Prime Minister's declaration that those responsible should go to jail, it was interesting that some Magistrates took him at his word and referred defendants to the Crown Court for sentencing. It was also interesting that many of those defendants didn't fit the stereotypical image of a disaffected alienated youth: a primary school mentor, postman, charity worker, lifeguard, scaffolder - some in their 20s and 30s. I did wonder about the 11-year old boy, though, complete with two mobile phones and a recent conviction and referral order for a previous but apparently unrelated offence. Why on earth we cling to this outmoded idea that "children" must be afforded the automatic protection of anonymity in Court for violent offences like these is beyond me. Hopefully some of the more hardcore offenders who have yet to be identified and traced will duly get their day in Court too.

The Prime Minister gave a 'tell it like it is' speech in Parliament: "... We will track you down, we will find you, we will charge you, we will punish you" Almost Churchillian in tone, I thought: "... we will fight you on the beaches, we will fight you in the streets, we will never surrender" The rest of us can only hope that the actions match the words and that the message finally starts to sink in.

Monday, 8 August 2011

And just what are these "consequences" of which you speak, Ms May?

As we enter a third successive night of rioting and looting on the streets of London, it seems that the politicians have woken up to the fact that 'Nero fiddling while Rome London burns' is probably not the best stance to take under the circumstances. I've just watched a clip of the Home Secretary declaring that it's all totally "unacceptable" (what an over-used word that has become, incidentally).

I feel a bit sorry for the Police, who are visibly struggling to keep what is essentially a snowballing level of gratuitous disorder and violence under some sort of control. Who did what to whom in respect of the initial arrest of the "armed gangsta"/"community elder" which sparked it all off last week is still under investigation. Rumours abound, and in the absence of hard information, gain currency as 'facts' - if x number of people tweet it, it must be true? The officers on the street have their work cut out being in the right place at the right time.

There are victims in all this. Mercifully, no-one else has yet lost their life in the ensuing violence. But innocent people will lose their cars, their possessions, their livelihoods in the wanton destruction. A couple of hundred arrests have reportedly been made. When the police take time out from simply maintaining some semblance of order to trawl through mounds of witness statements and CCTV footage, there may be more. What will happen? A few of those responsible may be prosecuted. Leaving aside the idiot who apparently photographed himself online proudly displaying all his looted goodies, who else is going to be held accountable for what they've done over the last few nights? And what's going to happen to them... these much-advertised "consequences"? Fines which they won't pay, Community service work which they won't do, and - if the 'Beak' is feeling really vindictive - maybe even a brief spell in jail (a good chunk of which they'll get out of - 'time spent on remand' - and which will probably be overturned on appeal anyway).

Oh- and I see it's now spreading.... to Birmingham. "West Midlands Police said it was aware of some disorder in Birmingham city centre, including some vandalised shops and incidents of theft" That's OK, then: the local 'Five-O' is on the case!

Friday, 5 August 2011

Hang 'em High

I was interested to read in the news this week that the last goverment's abortive attempt at "e-petitioning" is being resurrected in the form of a site, the idea behind which is that any petitions attracting in excess of 100,000 signatories will be considered for parliamentary discussion - a bit like a Private Members Bill by popular demand, as it were. As an exercise in 'Democracy in Action' I'm not going to knock it. The vote threshold should in theory be high enough to weed out the inevitable crackpots with bees in their bonnets... leaving, we're told, the restoration of the death penalty as the most-voted for subject for parliamentary discussion.

I'm old enough - just - to remember the last few instances of the death penalty being applied before it was abolished in the late 1960s. Over the years, there has undeniably been a measure of fairly widespread public support for its re-introduction, growing noticeably whenever a particularly gruesome or horrific murder is committed. The United States is the last remaining "civilized" country which retains it, albeit in diminishing numbers, and I don't think anyone in this country wants to see American-style 'Death Rows', where condemned prisoners spend a decade or more slowly exhausting a series of long-winded appeals processes.

So I doubt somehow that the petitioners have any realistic chance of seeing their aspirations put into practice. If on the other hand our Parliamentarians can be persuaded that some of the current sentences being handed down are woefully inadequate for the crimes that have been committed, then perhaps some good will come of it all.

Oh, and I daresay that exactly the same logic could be and will be applied to the restoration of caning in schools.