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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.

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.


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.

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’.

RE and the EBacc

As a brief follow-on from the previous post, a few words on Michael Gove’s decision not to include RE on the list of humanities subjects that students wishing to gain the EBacc accreditation will have to  study.

Now, the issue of RE is a vexed one, and as I have blogged before, and as I hope to blog again in future, there are very real tensions concerning what RE is for and what it should look like. Expectations and demands surrounding RE can differ hugely, affected as much by educational philosophy as by demands of particular establishments (faith schools tend to take a rather different approach from community schools, for example). Whilst it is excessive to call this an identity crisis, which would presume that the lack of uniformity is a bad thing, it is nonetheless true to say that views differ to a degree significant enough to lead some to think that RE is not, and cannot be, a ‘proper’ humanities subject like, say, History. I, of course, would beg to differ, and in the strongest possible terms, agreeing with the CES that (when delivered well) RE “…has a strong claim to be the humanity, par excellence as it demands knowledge and skills in history, textual criticism, anthropology, ethics, philosophy and theology.”

Interestingly, however, this question of academic rigour is not one that Gove seeks to present when addressing the concerns of those who question its expulsion from the EBacc system. Gove states that, firstly, RE is a compulsory subject, and has been ever since 1944, meaning that it does not warrant inclusion in a system which requires students to choose a particular humanities subject to study in greater depth. This (somewhat curious) defence leads directly on to the second, that since the aim of the EBacc is to increase dwindling participation in humanities subjects, therefore RE is not, for this reason, a candidate for inclusion in the EBacc.

Which strikes me as a complete sack of not-particularly-sweet-smelling-substance. If Gove’s vision is to supply students with a thorough and wide-ranging liberal education then quite how many students have ever taken any particular subject, and its current compulsory status on the curriculum or otherwise, is wholly beside the point. The question is simply this: can RE provide an element of that well-rounded and rigorous education? If it can, which is the real debate to be had, then its inclusion in the system is beyond debate.

Gove’s defence is a curious one, and to further the debate some point to the undesirable consequences such a decision might have on, for example, those very faith schools that the government have long made a song and dance about supporting. To quote from the document:

There is, however, concern that faith schools—to which the Government has said it is “committed” are indirectly discriminated against by the EBac’s exclusion of religious studies. The Church of England Board of Education explained the dilemma to us:

Church of England schools, many of which maintain a commitment to full course GCSE RS for all students, are now faced with an impossible choice. Keeping RE as part of the core for all students may well be seen as too risky. At the very least there will be extreme pressure on the timetable if RE is to be maintained alongside the acceptable English Baccalaureate subjects.

A survey of nearly 800 schools, conducted by the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education (NATRE), recently found that almost one in three secondary schools plans cuts to RE teaching. [my emphasis]

This is a key issue, since it will force the hand of Heads in faith schools, who have a commitment to their own founding ethos as well as one eye on the league tables that have the ability to make or break a career, not to mention a school. And beyond faith schools too, since if one essentially incentivises against RE then schools will increasingly choose not to offer it in the same depth and detail as they may have historically chosen to do. Quite apart from the question of whether this is an acceptable preparation for our children as they enter into a world that continues to be so hugely influenced by religion (on the level of sociology as well as philosophy and ethics), the question also remains of whether this allows students to explore and engage with seams of thought that might assist their own development, both personally and as conscientious citizens. As Ben Thomas, a Headmaster from Battersea, put it (drawing upon similar sentiments to those I explored yesterday),

Tolerance will surely come only through understanding of each other’s religions, and understanding through education

Non-faith schools, without the downward pressure of diocesan commitments and governors to protect RE in their schools, could quite easily shelve RE as any sort of mainstream subject, and in so doing create blindspots in the intellectual and moral development of our children that no amount of Citizenship lessons are ever likely to fill, and this in precisely those schools where commitment to explorations of faith and religion might already be weakest*. Again, from the report:

Others have argued that the absence of religious education in the EBac will encourage schools — despite its standing as a compulsory subject — to treat the subject less seriously, which could have a detrimental effect on students’ wider education. Headteacher Hugh O’Neill predicted that “for a non-faith school” religious education will become “an extremely rare choice, if the EBac stays as it is”, despite being—in the words of another Headteacher — “as rigorous academically at GCSE as history and geography.”

And that last comment is key, since it seems to me that, for all that he is doing his level best to avoid saying it, the real reason why Gove has chosen to exlcude RE from the EBacc is because he doubts its academic rigour and would prefer the emphasis to fall on History and/or Geography instead. The clue comes with Gove’s suggestion that some poorly performing schools (it is not worded thus, but the implication is clear) might use RE as a ‘tick-box’ for the humanities subject in order for their students to achieve the EBacc – the language heavily implying that, for Gove, RE can be seen as an easy option.

Which is perfectly fine and, in truth, is a sentiment that I myself once signed up to. But if this is so then Gove should just come out and say it and let the debate be had on those terms.  However, by refusing to engage with the discussion on these terms, Gove denies RE the space to improve its standing in the curriculum and develop (where needed) its academic credentials, and in so doing denies children the opportunity to gain their EBacc accreditation through a route that can combine intellectual challenge with opportunities for social, spiritual and moral development – opportunities that might simply not be available in quite the same manner throughout the rest of the curriculum.

Quite apart from being ill-suited to the EBacc vision, RE, it seems to me, ought to be the very foundation of a broad-based, wide-ranging, and academically challenging classical liberal education. Quite why Michael Gove does not think so remains, even now, far from clear.

*I’m not saying this is necessarily the case, more that the conditions have been created for it to be so.

The contributory principle: a two-way street

People who take out of the pot should have to put something in. Seems fair enough to me. I mean, there has to be the flexibility to accommodate those who, without fault, find themselves on the sharp edge of that rule of thumb, of course, but the root sentiment is laudable: we’re all in this together. We all contribute, then we are all justified in taking something out, when the need presents itself.

This, though put more plainly than the sophisticates in the thinktanks would like to put it, is essentially the contributory principle. And the contributory principle has become central to so many new political oeuvres of late that one can be sure that it is here to stay. We’re told that it was a mode of thought that informed the creation of the first welfare state, that it is the transgression of this principle that has led to people falling out of love with the welfare state, and that it is at the very root of much opposition to immigration, with people seeing immigrants using ‘our services’ without ever having contributed much, either economically or socially, to the creation of that system. The reasoning is plain enough: you haven’t put in; you have no right to take out.

And it is this principle that the lies at the root of much Tory rhetoric on welfare, with its ever-present slogans of ‘welfare scroungers’, ‘welfare junkies’, ‘ending the free ride’ and ‘dependency culture’.

The tone of debate has proven popular, of course, and though the label has been long dropped, it all forms what was once diagnosed as the ‘Broken Society’, an illness to which the Tories never really prescribed a cure.  The success is understandable, since in trading in such logic the Tories connect at the most basic level with the frustrations the general public feel toward the welfare system and the way it is, at times, abused. (This is a good thing by the way, since frustration suggests people still care, and is therefore much more preferable to indifference).

In the face of such rhetoric, the left often does one of two things; it wrings its hands, knowing it cannot possibly argue with such reasoning, before making a goalpost-shifting response about people who dodge tax (such as the Guardian, for example), or else they deny the problem really exists and revert to calling the Tories the nasty party, coming up with some suitably emotional anecdotal evidence to drive the point home. With such responses the left aren’t exactly wrong, but they’re not exactly right either, and people will generally have enough capacity to reason or experience to recall to tell them that each of these responses are far from convincing. Thus, the issue has become a stick with which the Tory party can hit the Labour Party – and the Labour Party are either forced to play along with Tory rules, or to accept their beating and appear out of touch.

Of course, some on the left may feel that these responses are entirely legitimate, since the issue of ‘tax-dodging’ is far more substantial to the Exchequer than any sum taken out by welfare ‘scroungers’ or benefits fraud.

But such a response is ultimately unconvincing because for many people it falls on the wrong side of the dichotomy between those who do not contribute and those who take out unfairly, a moral miscalculation that puts the left at odds with the general sway of public opinion. For whatever reason, the act of dishonestly making claims upon the system simply irritates more than the act of tax avoidance, a practice which, let us not forget, finds a home in state accredited savings schemes. For reasons not entirely clear, the moral code underpinning the system simply appears for most people to be more under threat by the dishonest claimant than it is by the people who shift their money around in order to avoid having to put so much in. Some on the left may not like that, but that’s just the way it is.

But it leaves one with the question: does the contributory principle, and all attendant notions of fairness and justice, not offer an alternative playing field upon which the left could mount their own charge and turn the tables on the Tories?

Well, I think so. After all, the nub of the contributory principle is this: if you put in, you’re well justified in being able to ask for some back. The challenge is zooming out from the micro level of specific welfare systems on to the societal level, spanning the horizon of lifetimes rather than those specific bouts of joblessness and need.  Labour should be acknowledging that fraudulently claiming on the welfare system is wrong, but with it offer the corollary to that very same logic, that those who have put a good shift in should be entitled to ask for a little something back. It should readily accept that relying on the welfare system when other options are available is an abuse of the system, but it should also use the same language to make the point that those who have avoided such reliance, who have worked a lifetime and paid their dues, shouldn’t have to die in poverty worrying about end of life care. It should concede that taking out of the system without genuine need is wrong, but it should maintain that by the same logic those who work hard shouldn’t have to live with constant insecurity, wondering how they will find the money to cover the rise in fuel and food prices.

In short, the ideals of fairness and justice that the Tories have come to own, couched in terms of contribution the system, should be the stick with which Labour hit the Tories, not the other way round. The very same language and logic that has Labour floundering on the back foot when Tories make populist (and entirely legitimate) political points about benefits ‘scroungers’, can also provide Labour with an opportunity to broaden out the horizons and say:  ‘well if true with welfare, then true in society at large’. The Tories like the contributory principle because it provides a narrative that allows them to appear morally literate in the eyes of the public, able to connect with common understandings of fairness and justice, yet without unduly affecting their own natural constituency. Labour should grasp that principle and use it make much larger demands on the Tories, on the way they are managing the economic situation, and on the consequences their decisions are having for people who have put into the system.

The days are gone when smug young lefties could just screech slogans at trendy rallies about social justice and expect everybody to sign up without thought or question. Labour, for whatever reason, is often seen at odds with the priorities, concerns, desires and expectations of ordinary people. To reverse this, Labour needs to root its response to Tory cuts firmly within the ideas and moral norms of ordinary people. Labour, therefore needs to grasp those narratives that have proved so popular for the Tories and begin to use their tools against them.

Defending the state

Blue Labour has followed hot on the heels of Red Toryism as the latest intellectual craze that the commentariat are pretending to be sympathetic to, primarily because, they say, it is giving voice to the kind of outlook they have always secretly subscribed to but never bothered to admit. Quite why it has taken certain amongst their number so long to open their mouths and utter concern at the old zeitgeist is, I suspect, a question to which we are not likely to receive an answer. Even so, the debate is moving and, one hopes, so does the centre-ground move with it.

Now it is important to note, amidst the to-and-fro of primary colour currently shaping our political landscape, that Blue Labourites are not the same as Red Tories, even whilst both are economically to the left and socially to the right. And the chief distinction between them comes down to the very thing that both movements have had greatest success in critiquing: the role, influence and make-up of the state.

Quite why this is so shall be the focus of what follows, but for now suffice it to say simply this: post-cuts politics needs to be much more robust in making a positive case for the legitimate and necessary role of the state in creating and sustaining that very society that both traditions outwardly claim to be seeking.

As such, both Blue Reds and Red Blues should feel able to unite on the point, precisely because both movements, however they differ in detail, fundamentally require a positive vision of the state to underpin their analysis and provide a platform upon which to advance their agenda, be it Blondian distributism or Glasmanite conservative socialism.

And the reason why such a case is not currently being robustly made is, I think, partly due to the success of the case that is being made.

To give a brief overview, when the Red Tory hit the scene David Cameron gobbled up his critique of market liberalism as the template through which he would detoxify his party from its Thatcherite associations. Of course, the economic crash did not help in that ambition, and the installation of George Osborne in No. 11 will always lead one to question the sincerity of Cameron’s conversion, but the important point was this: Team Cameron bought the economic argument whilst leaving Blond’s social analysis of liberalism well alone (which is why the Tory diagnosis of Broken Britain never really came with a cure).

And yet, not entirely alone. You see, Blond’s account of social liberalism, which itself included a convincing critique of the liberal authoritarian State, dovetailed rather nicely with his (socially conservative) civic communitarianism, and in so doing provided a rather handy template for those whose concern was not with the perniciousness of social liberalism as such, but with the role of the state in particular. Alas, the accusation that the Big Society vibe has provided the intellectual cover for an ideological attack on the role of the state is accurate, if not for all then certainly for all those who matter.

Blue Labour, on the other hand, has been pushing against the same door from the opposite direction, and is concentrating its effort rather more on the social argument, precisely because its economic argument was always likely to go down well (save the odd ridiculous misreading – take a bow, Billy). It is essentially a reverse process of what Blond has been ateempting with the Tories, and its success is not unrelated to the fact that its prime target is a clique and a philosophy which, many would argue, is and never has been mainstream in the Labour movement anyway. To put it in (overly) simple terms, Glasman has had to convince a party to return to its natural roots on economics and look more closely at its social doctrines (the two intertwine, though the latter in particular has included an analysis of the role of the state), whilst Blond has had to move the Conservatives on two fronts, that being the party on economics, and the leadership on social conservatism.

Which brings us back to that issue of the state, an ideal and an institution that has been picked at for its myriad cumulative deficiencies in the later-part of the twentieth -century, without currently receiving much by way of positive endorsement and/or legitimation.

For you see, it often seems there is a gaping hole where a confident Labour movement should be (and indeed, from a different angle, where a confident small ‘c’ conservative movement should be too). In surging forth with its robust analysis of the statism the Labour movement had come to embrace, drawing upon much Red Tory analysis and language in the process, Blue Labour has thus far failed to make a convincing and positive case for the state, at least in any serious and sustained manner – thereby neglecting what Anthony Painter has termed the trump card the left has to play against the apparently anti-state coalition.

And in offering an exciting vision of the reciprocal, mutualist, co-operative and associative society, and the ways in which mechanistic, technocratic and bureaucratic systems can stifle that organic flourishing of human relationships, both Red Tory and Blue Labour have neglected to seriously consider the way in which the state underpins, facilitates and enables exactly the kind of society that both would recognise as consistent with the ‘good society’ we ought to be aiming for.

Neglecting to offer this positive vision, however, will eventually prove detrimental, not only because the mood at the moment is so anti-state and therefore needs countering precisely in the name of Blue Labour/Red Tory, but also because the Tories and (in a much more refined sense) both Blond and Glasman have provided such convincing and damning accounts of statism that unless one is attentive to the risk then the baby might just find itself thrown out with the bathwater.

Let’s hope, then, that the emphasis will begin to change, and we will soon hear why these two thinkers think the state is A Good Thing, to be cultivated and ultimately defended, against both apathy and the attacks of those whose only positive word for the state is the extent to which it can deliver their own anti-state agenda.


My contribution to the great purpos/ed debate.

Q. What’s the purpose of education?

A. To make kids brighter

That should just about do it. I’ll donate my 496 unused words to a good cause.