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The Catholic Left

For those unable to purchase the Catholic Herald, find below the sub of an article of mine that appeared this weekend.

The Left is not the enemy of the Catholic Church
Catholic commentators should be careful not to demonise those on the Left, says Michael Merrick

They do not flow quite so easily as they once used to, the words ‘Catholic’ and ‘Left’. These terms used to fit snugly together, accurately describing the political inclinations of swathes of the Catholic community, but have been slowly rent apart: from cliché to contradiction within less than two decades.

The separation hardly came out of the blue. Following years of implicit and explicit attack endured during New Labour’s reign, one could naturally understand the Catholic commentariat snuggling up to the Conservatives, the latest swing of the pendulum toward whichever political party would ease the relentless pressure being placed upon the faithful.  The foot needed taking from the throat and if the Conservatives brought with them the promise of breathing space, then all well and good.

Yet the fallout between the Catholic community and the left has taken on air of permanence of late, just as the bonds have taken root between the Catholic community and the political Right. For what has become increasingly obvious is that, for a good number of well-informed and genuinely astute individuals, being an orthodox Catholic and being on ‘the Left’ is largely incompatible.

It is the language that shapes the intellectual landscape which lets us see most clearly the direction of travel. For many, ‘the Left’ is a phrase emblematic of those habits of thought and action that stand aggressively against the truths upheld by the Catholic Church. Respected commentators with whom many a faithful Catholic would find common ground, including certain luminaries of this parish, are perfectly happy to attribute a host of ideological idiocies to this phenomenon. Everything from liturgical vandalism to hug-a-heretic liberalism is attributed to that dark and not-so-distant force known as ‘the Left’.

Apart from being untrue (in itself a fairly fatal flaw in the analysis) the impression is given that the promulgators of such myths prefer cartoon caricature to blood and guts reality, even at the cost of flinging mud at those they ought to be standing alongside.

The notion that Left-wing thought is inimical to orthodox Catholic thinking is simply not one that is shared by a great many of those sitting in the pews throughout the country. To engage with the legacies left to us by our forefathers in faith, indeed by the very weave of social history and our unique place in it, while proclaiming that ‘the Left’ is an enemy, in whatever sense, of the faith and the Catholic community: this tale, as much as any other, presents itself as a hermeneutic of rupture.

After all, the faith that inclines an individual to stand in defence of the family, of the unborn, of the truths and values of the faithful community, is precisely the same faith that similarly compels some to stand on the Left-wing of the political spectrum, arguing that all these things are relentlessly assaulted by the political orthodoxies of the Right. This was as true historically, with sophisticated Catholic critiques of capitalism, as it remains now, as more than a few in the Labour Party continue to demonstrate. To use ‘the Left’ as shorthand for dissent is to ignore this crucial aspect: for many, their political and economic critiques are manifestations of their fidelity, not obstacles to it.

This is not to embrace what the professional, political Left has too often become. One can readily admit that social liberalism has fractured our communities every bit as much as its market-based twin, and mourn the role of the Labour Party in pursuing that creed (though one could point out that this ideological oeuvre has always been a hobby of the already empowered, existent within all three political parties). Indeed, for the Left the story is not as uniform as its cultured despisers would have it. Peter Hitchens’s distinction between the social and moral conservatism of the Left’s working class, and the ‘let-it-all-hang-out liberals’ comprised largely of the Oxbridge elite, is apposite.

Yet, in confining discussion to the moral free-marketeers of the New Left, one tells only half a story. For while the Catholic view of the family and the unborn (for example) are rightly defended from upon the rock-solid walls of Church teaching, we must be careful not to forget that other teachings have equal call on our thought and action. Church teaching interlinks and interweaves, most compellingly when offered as a coherent, holistic vision. Its impact is neutered the moment it is balkanised for political expediency. To use the encyclicals most symbolic of the impulses of which we speak, Humanae Vitae presents itself most powerfully when read with Rerum Novarum, not in isolation from it.

This gets at the nub of it. The phenomenon alluded to by those who would wash their hands of ‘the Left’ is not a political party or tradition, to be pinned to one end of an increasingly redundant political spectrum. It is much more elusive than that, forever moving because ultimately loyal to nothing but itself. As John Milbank has argued, the feigned confrontation of Left and Right is nothing but shadow play:­ in truth they are allies, each pursuing only the liberalism that drives them.

This demands that we employ a little more nuance in interpreting the socio-political landscape. The truth is that that which the Church holds to be good and true can exist on the Left, has existed on the Left, and continues to exist among significant portions of the Left, as becomes obvious once one zooms out from the unrepresentative outpourings of media-savvy progressive activists and cosmopolitan liberals ill at ease with their own tradition. Indeed, there are few expressions of Church social and moral teaching not readily identifiable within the traditions of the Left, both historically and philosophically, a truth inexplicably forgotten though increasingly rediscovered.

As such, painting ‘the Left’ as the bogeyman that assaults a Catholic vision of the good life is not just simplistic but genuinely dangerous, since it feeds into that culture war narrative that is so pernicious to the wholeness of Church teaching precisely because its tidy-minded simplicity, while so very alluring, is also so very wrong.

Not that I try to claim Catholicism for the Left, or indeed the Left for Catholicism. To do so would be to contradict my whole purpose in writing this article.

But it is to offer a warning that those who would slip so cosily into the arms of the Conservatives as a reaction against ‘the Left’ ought to be careful: that which you run toward is much the same as that which you run from. The intellectual and political tides that swept away any influence among the professional Left (although not the cultural Left) are the same tides currently weaving their way through the professional Right.

In other words, the revolution of the New Left is the revolution of the New Right. And both need Truth spoken to them.

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Teaching Time

I’ve often thought there is a tendency in teaching to try to offer intellectual justification for educational trends that lead primarily to diminishing the role of the teacher. Partly, I suspect, this is because of a philosophical and cultural fetish for anything that contravenes settled notions of authority and hierarchy; partly, it is because of a hazy commitment to such nebulous terms as ‘independence’ and ‘freedom’.

But what if there were more to it? I’m no historian, and so couldn’t chart any patterns of causation or correlation, but what if so many of these trends were actually just attempts to add bien pensant pseudo-psycho-baubles to what are essentially strategies of self-preservation? What if the constant move toward making the teacher less important in the educational process is the result of the fact that the teacher finds it increasingly difficult to be in control of the educational process?

Let me explain. Over on ResPublica’s blog, Joe Nutt can be found musing on the difference between current indigenous educational philosophies and those prevalent in more successful educational systems through the medium of, well, red ink.

In essence, he is arguing that to improve educational standards we must demand academic excellence, both from our students but also from our teachers. To tease out the differences, he notes that whereas in Finland he witnessed a teacher who was willing to cover a pupil’s work in thorough and detailed written feedback, in Britain there is naught but jangled nerves about covering work in red pen, either because we no longer believe in academic excellence, or because our current commitments lie with other pastoral concerns, such as confidence building and the like.

As such, for Nutt a commitment to excellence in teaching, which means also in teachers, is the single most important factor in improving standards and outcomes, this being more crucial than (for example) the structure of the institution in which they work.

And he has a point. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has had to endure sanctimonious twaddle about the use of red pen in the classroom. Or the cruelty inherent in ‘over-correcting’ work. In this sense, maybe Nutt is correct in saying that the issue is a cultural one rather than an organisational or institutional one, meaning that any solution to it lies in a conversion of the heart rather than the Head (see what I did there?).

I’m sure Nutt would also have the support of a great many of those who send their children to schools expecting them to be educated. To focus in on one example, it is not at all uncommon to hear people criticising teachers for the standards of marking, or more specifically the fact that they ignore such seemingly fundamental things as spelling and grammar and instead cover a book in ticks and the occasional motivational refrain. This is perfectly understandable: parents, along with everybody else, expect teachers to educate the young and whilst this clearly includes subject knowledge, they also expect ‘the basics’ (spelling and grammar) to be picked up on as being a non-negotiable core aspect of the teacher’s duties.

And, all things being equal, these people are absolutely right in that expectation.

But then, there’s rather more to it than that. Because what Nutt’s argument presumes, and the argument of those parents suggests, is that if only teachers could be converted to the cause of academic excellence then the most significant barrier to achieving this standards vision will have been removed.

But this is simply not true: even for those who yearn to spill the red ink, the reality is that they are not always able.

To explore this a little, lets take the example of a humanities subject teacher. Now, teachers in Britain, at least those without any management responsibility, will have to teach twenty-two classes per week. At an average of, say, thirty children per class, that works out at six hundred and sixty pieces of work per week. That is, by the end of each week, each teacher will have accrued 660 pieces of work that they need to have marked.

Now, imagine the teacher has given their class a set of 10 questions to complete. Or, a piece of prose to write which covers, say, one side of their exercise book. Not only does that teacher have to ensure that all content is accurate and/or well expressed, and make corrections accordingly, they also have to pick up on that grammar and spelling that any normal person would reasonably expect them to amend. There is rather more to it than that, of course, dependent on the level of work set and much else, but let us keep it basic for now.

As such, it is not at all unreasonable to assume that as an average, to mark a piece of work in full detail could take, say, three minutes. (There are many variables, but let’s just take this as a reasonable average)

Now do the sums: 660 pieces of work, with each taking three minutes to mark. That would mean marking each week works out at 33 hours. On top of the 22 hours teaching. And the however many hours planning for those lessons. And making the resources for them.  And everything else that comes with being in a school, from pastoral roles to extra-curricular activities to myriad else besides.

And one could (perhaps should) have added in homework, usually one piece per subject per week, but as this varies from school to school I’ll leave it out: nonetheless for most teachers, the setting, chasing and marking (and punishing for non-submission) has to be factored into their time too.

Whilst this is clearly far from a rigorous scientific analysis, the general point is this: whilst Joe Nutt can rightly admire the Finnish teacher who spent six hours giving detailed feedback to one class on one piece of work, he is wrong to simultaneously speculate that the only barrier to this happening in the United Kingdom is cultural rather than institutional. The truth is that, however much one might desire to cover a page in detailed feedback (or evil red ink, depending on your view) there yet exists only so many hours in a day in which to do it. In this sense, the problem really is institutional, with philosophical or cultural considerations being the secondary issue.

Which brings me full circle and that daft idea that correcting work is somehow oppressive, or an example of bad practice, or whatever other reason given against it: might this not just be a manifestation of the preservation instinct, a way of saying (without actually having to say it) – we simply cannot do this?

Which is ironic. Not least because it would mean the trendy educational progressives become the stalwarts of the status-quo, the useful idiots finding ways to rationalise the system that simply demands too much.

If teaching is to improve then teachers need to be given time to be teachers. And that really is an institutional issue.

Recruitment and Retention

Teaching. It’s a tough job. Genuinely.

Which means that, sometimes, people get into teaching and find it is not for them. The demands placed upon them, they decide, are too unreasonable. The task, they decide, too thankless. The alternatives, they imagine, too tempting.

And so they leave the profession.

This has been an issue for a long time now. Education Secretary after Education Secretary has had to sit and listen whilst Sir Humphrey after Sir Humphrey has had to explain to him or her that, for whatever reason, those teachers that cost us a fortune to train are leaving the profession in droves.

And it is literally droves. Whilst the figures swing about a bit, the cliché runs that more than 50% of those who start on teacher training courses are no longer teaching within five years. Admittedly, some of the research upon which is the based is quite old (see here) whilst other bits rely primarily on polling (for example this), but the issue is still a hot one – just last year, Michael Gove mourned the fact that there are almost as many qualified teachers no longer teaching as there are qualified teachers continuing to teach.

So, the teaching profession has a problem. It can still, just about, attract people to the profession, but it is rather less capable of keeping them once they arrive. Slowly it limps along, not quite managing to cover the wastage with its yearly influx of new talent, many of whom become the next batch of statistics on Sir Humphrey’s briefing paper.

The bodyshock that comes with the workload is one primary cause for the exodus; the stress of workplace issues, in particular pupil behaviour, is the other.

And we lose some fantastic talent in the process.

Yet, so long as the numbers wanting to get into teaching remains sufficiently high to cover the losses the wreck keeps rolling, and we can claim to be holding the Maginot Line. After all, who cares if 50% of teachers leave the profession, so long as those remaining are significant enough in number to satiate the needs of the system? If we can pretend to the outside world that it ain’t broke, then that’s what we’ll jolly well do.

But what if the production line was to dry up? What if the fodder for the system became more and more sparse? What if more and more people looked at the financial package on offer and decided they could better use their (very expensively acquired) degree elsewhere? What if others decided that having to endure the almost mythical workload until they were 68 is not sufficiently tempting to draw them in? What if others decided the c. £27,000 for a degree plus c. £9,000 for QTS were investments they could ill-afford to make? What if the static pay and decreased incentives were not enough to tempt career switchers to take a chance on the low trust-high surveillance profession of teaching?

Well, then there really would be a problem. And no amount of politicians waving their arms assuring everyone that teaching is an elite profession would ever be enough to make up for it.

Michael Gove no doubt worries about the leeching of talent from the teaching profession.

Good.

Next he should worry whether his actions, and those of his government, are discouraging the talented from even bothering with teaching in the first place.

Outstanding Teachers

A tip for aspiring snake-oil salesmen: to help peddle your wares in the state school sector, always start any pitch with the words ‘Ofsted are looking for…’

It’s a winner. After all, which school would dare object to anything that might improve their standing with the Masters of the Universe? Whether the idea has merit or not is irrelevant – whether the school thinks that Ofsted thinks the idea has merit is the ballgame. Be assured, if schools thought that Ofsted wanted to see kinaesthetic starters where we dress ourselves in Velcro suits and fling ourselves against a felt wall, then we’ll damn well do it, and even find time for a mini-plenary afterward.

Of course, this is all very odd. But it is also the way things are. Schools, fearful of their reputation (and the numbers on roll), will do whatever it takes to please those who have the privilege and responsibility of pronouncing on the quality of our establishment.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Well, nobody really. Which is rather the problem. It lets schools turn lessons into game shows to impress an Ofsted inspector sat at the back of a classroom for twenty minutes, and it lets Ofsted inspectors think game shows and myriad other feel-good learning environments are signs of a healthy, vibrant, educational establishment.

Which is where the snake-oil salesman is rubbing his hands together with glee, making money from both sides of the divide. The disconnect between what a school thinks Ofsted want to see, and what Ofsted actually want to see, is not usually all that far apart. What should be an agency to minimise dreadful practice is also, with a quick change of clothes, an agency to enforce uniformity within schools on issues such as pedagogy and the like.

Which is fine when the ideas are sensible. Not so much when they’re not.

It is a problem the whole teaching establishment grapples with. Or at least, they would grapple with it if they would even acknowledge it as a problem. For example, I remember once being in a lecture, during my teacher training, when the gentleman giving the lecture excoriated his old Geography teacher from his school days, launching into him on everything from pedagogy to philosophy. We were left in no doubt that the kind of teaching that this teacher displayed was bad (‘we had to copy things from the board!’), and if any of us had sympathy with any of the things there mentioned then clearly we were bad teachers too. Fortunately, at the end of the lecture, I managed to ask this lecturer what grade he finally received in Geography. He told me he received an A, but that wasn’t really the point he was making.

Well, quite.

Which left me thinking: why do so many lecturers trash the systems and methods that built them into the well-educated and successful professionals they are today? Or more to the point, why do they deny the systems and methods that built them into well-educated and successful professionals to the youth of today? Until we have an answer to that, and whilst it is these people who set the rules of the game, little is likely to change.

 Back when ah wurra lad…

Whenever any teacher embarks on their training career, or when they go on some training course which requires one to reflect on what a good teacher looks like, they are nearly always asked to picture their favourite teacher from when they were at school. You know, the one who inspired them to run a marathon, or cure cancer, or become a teacher or whatever. And from amidst the smiling-stares and nostalgic sighs comes a vague list of the things that were special about this teacher, about what they did and how they did it.

But it is far from an easy task. After all, for many of us these inspirational teachers would now be considered ineffective. Looking at what we are told makes an outstanding teacher, very few of my best teachers (yes, I would use the word outstanding) would doubtless be graded as satisfactory today, maybe worse, despite the fact that I and many others flourished under their tutelage.

None of my teachers ever set learning objectives, you see, nor shared learning outcomes. They didn’t play music in lessons, and except in practical lessons we were never allowed time to be out of our seats. We used textbooks and we answered questions from the board, and the teacher stood at the front of the class and gave us knowledge that he or she expected us to both make notes on and learn. We were tested and given grades, not levels. We never went on Learning Walks (though we did go on school trips). There were no games used in lesson, except for at the end of term-time, and we were not given regular opportunities for discussion, collaboration and feedback. They sometimes shouted and were not averse to making an example of a student.  They did not explain to us how lessons would be structured and there was certainly no constant linking to some vague and essentially meaningless AfL or NC criteria. There was no WILF, there was no WALT, there was no SEAL and there was no PLTS.

They simply taught, and we simply learned.

Quite frankly, give them a list of criteria of what constitutes outstanding practice and they would only be able to conclude that they’re simply not up to the job.

Hark, some will cry, if they were that good then they would have embraced change and adapted; they would have liberated their classrooms from the tyranny of straight row teaching and formed a u-shaped parliament; they would have banished chalk and talk and planned for kinaesthetic learning time; they would have expelled those crusty old textbooks and brought in ICT with animation-rich PowerPoint. These excellent teachers you remember would have been at the cutting edge of keyword carousels, and quadblogging, and the assessment archipelago, and myriad other oh-doesn’t-it-feel-good-to-be-innovative teaching methods of dubious educational value.

And yet, no. Just no. I’m almost certain that, for those teachers that remain an inspiration to me, should they still be in the profession at all then they would be classed as the cynical long in the tooth old-guard refusing to embrace the new ways of doing things. And for precisely that reason ignored by those and amongst those who really ought to be listening to them most attentively.

Alas, next time I’m asked at some conference or training event about my ideal teacher by some professional educator who has never been in a school, either at all or in a very long time, then I might just feel the urge to eulogise my favourite teachers before saying with a sigh: ‘yes, they really were excellent. And it is in their honour that I feel obliged to tell you to shove this dross up your a**e.’

Abortion and the left

Apparently, all discussion on the topic of abortion with intent to restrict, in any manner whatsoever, current abortion provision is merely the reactionary impulse of a bigoted right-wing elite. Or, put rather differently, you can’t be left-wing and prolife.

Which must come as some news to John Battle, Celia Barlow, Stuart Bell, Joe Benton, David Borrow, Des Browne, Ronnie Campbell, Tom Clarke, David Crausby, John Cummings, Tony Cunningham, Claire Curtis-Thomas, Parmjit Dhanda, David Drew, Bill Etherington, Frank Field, Jim Fitzpatrick, Michael Jabez Foster, Paul Goggins, John Grogan, Andrew Gwynne, David Hamilton, Tom Harris, Meg Hillier, Lindsay Hoyle, Huw Iranca-Davies, Helen Jones, Ruth Kelly, Peter Kilfoyle, Ivan Lewis, Martin Linton, Andrew MacKinlay, Gordon Marsden, Eric Martlew, Shahid Malik, Gordon Marsden, Thomas McAvoy, John McFall, Jim McGovern, Chris Mullin, Paul Murphy, Mike O’Brien, Albert Owen, Nick Palmer, James Plaskitt, Greg Pope, Stephen Pound, Bridget Prentice, Andy Reed, John Reid, Terry Rooney, Frank Roy, Chris Ruane, Geraldine Smith, Gerry Sutcliffe, David Taylor, Paddy Tippin, Don Touhig, Derek Twigg, Kitty Ussher, Keith Vaz, Claire Ward and Ian Wright, all of them Labour MPs (though some no longer) when the issue was last put to the House, all of them deciding that the law needed tightening, that the age limit for abortion should be brought down, be it to 22 weeks, or to 20 weeks, or to 16 weeks, or 12 weeks.

Which rather suggests that being prolife is not at all antithetical to being on the left. Even in philosophical terms, one would have to assume the current dogma of the ‘progressive’ New Left is the arbiter of orthodoxy for left-wing thought, something which is neither sociologically nor historically true.

None of which, of course, will come as news for those who live their lives outwith that small but vociferous activist core currently inhabiting the professional left.

Still, we should pause once in a while to remind ourselves just who the extremists *really* are.

Lammy and fatherhood

In areas like mine, we know that 59% of black Caribbean children are looked after by a lone parent. There is none of the basic starting presumption of two adults who want to start a family, raise children together, love them, nourish them and lead them to full independence. The parents are not married and the child has come, frankly, out of casual sex; the father isn’t present, and isn’t expected to be. There aren’t the networks of extended families to make up for it. We are seeing huge consequences of the lack of male role models in young men’s lives..

That from David Lammy, who was writing on fatherhood well before the riots kicked off, here willing to say what all too many on the professional left would shy away from.

Which might give the impression he thinks fatherhood is important. Which it is. And good on him for saying so.

Can’t think why, then, he voted against a bill that stipulated the welfare of children conceived through fertility treatment had to include consideration of the need for both a father and a mother.

Or why, indeed, he voted against a bill simply wanting to enshrine the need to take into account the welfare of a child conceived through fertility treatment, with such considerations to include the need for a father.

And much else besides, should one care to look for it. Truth is, for all the anguish and despair, the apparent collapse of belief in family and fatherhood amongst the social ‘underclass’ merely reflects the collapse of belief in family and fatherhood amongst the political class.

(hat-tip Guido)

Social Micawberism

From the socialist Norman Dennis,

On any performance or characteristic that can be measured from smallest to largest—any ‘continuous variable’—most people are clustered on both sides of the category’s average score. The numbers then tail off in one direction to the few who have extremely low scores (a few English adults are under three feet tall). The numbers tail off in the other direction to the few who have extremely high scores (a few English adults are over seven feet tall).

Very frequently one category’s bell-shaped curve overlaps with that of another category. Very frequently, indeed, the intra-group dispersion from the lowest to highest scorers is much larger than the difference between the average for the two groups—there is a very large overlap. The average height of the category ‘women holding British passports’ is lower than that of the category of ‘men holding British passports’. There are more women in the ‘small stature’ tail of the distribution than men, and more men in the ‘tall stature’ tail than women. The curve showing the number of women of different height is shifted to the low end of the distribution as compared with the men’s curve. But the curves overlap very considerably. Many women, that is, are taller than many men. Everyone knows that both things are true. Men are taller than women. But many men are smaller than many women.

This is so obvious that no difficulties ever arise when the matter is discussed. No one ever tries to argue that because there are undoubtedly tall women and short men, this proves that men and women are the same height, though it is quite possible to argue that under modern urban and economic conditions the difference is no longer of much social significance (that is a second, separate, but also an empirical matter).

Yet since the 1960s the first argument has been applied quite recklessly to the characteristics, achievements and experiences in the area of sex, child-care, childrearing, and adult mutual-aid. It can be shown that children biologically created in any number of technically available ways, and subjected to almost any conceivable sort of parenting, can be found who do as well on almost any conceivable criterion

as some children born to and brought up by their permanently married biological parents. Therefore (the non sequitur runs) families without fathers are ‘just as good as’ the institution of life-long heterosexual monogamy as the context for procreation and socialization. Or they could be just as good as long as they were given enough money: fatherhood is only a matter of cash. Or they would be just as good if the matrix within which sexual practices, and arrangements for the safety and well-being of the child, had been those created by, say, Danish conditions, not by British economic and social development. Or ‘the jury is still out’, and we do well to remain neutral and inactive on the question of whether these ‘alternative families’ do on the average a better job for children brought up in them.

‘If Mr. Micawber’s creditors will not give him time’, said Mrs. Micawber, ‘they must take the consequences.’ So the policy of social Micawberism is happily propagated, at the expense of a generation of children or more, that we may ready ‘in the case of anything turning up’.