Thursday, 18 October 2012

Exploitation and Fair Trade in Media

On Tuesday evening this week, the editor of Private Eye, Ian Hislop, presented the last of his programmes on the ‘stiff upper lip’ which British people are famous for.

He reflected, in the course of that programme, on the edition of his magazine which had caused the most outrage. After Princess Diana’s death (never has the British stiff upper lip been less in evidence among the general public), Private Eye published a front cover which pointed out the hypocrisy with which the public acted: outrage at the circumstance of the Princess’ death was expressed by those who had been willing to pay the inflated prices of newspapers and magazines containing prurient pictures of celebrities. Those inflated magazine or newspaper prices had, of course, funded the photographic frenzy that pursues celebrities around the world through long lenses.

Privacy became a hot issue again this summer, when two members of the royal family had their privacy invaded in only a few weeks – first Prince Harry found that one of the friends he had invited back to his hotel room in Las Vegas had taken a picture of him naked, and sold it to the papers. Only shortly afterwards, his sister-in-law, The Duchess of Cambridge, was photographed sunbathing topless next to a swimming pool on a substantial private estate in France, by a man who had to stand on his car roof to see over the estate wall, and use a long lens. These photographs have been published by magazines in several countries and are apparently viewable online.

Privacy has never been so prized, and so valuable –the prices of houses with long drives and high garden walls are testament to that. It’s strange that, in the UK at least, we all want to live in houses which have privacy, and we all want privacy for ourselves, and yet we seem to have more than our fair share of the newspapers and magazines which make their money out of ignoring the rights to privacy of other people. We want our own privacy, but we want to acquire the private lives of other people too.

So how do young people reconcile the behaviour of the press, and their own magazine, or newspaper buying habits, with the desire they reasonably have for their own privacy. And does the ubiquity of the camera – embedded into every phone – mean that privacy of grief, of suffering, or of elation is no longer possible at any newsworthy event. Pictures are taken, beamed round the world, and viewed by millions. How many subjects of such pictures will rue it later? How will our pupils deal with the possibility of giving away their own privacy, as well as participating in business which forcibly takes it away from others?

And reality television presents another problem: how do we respond - how should we respond - when others give away their privacy, often in the hope of riches they cannot obtain by other means?

In an assembly this week, I suggested that the definition of fair trade should perhaps include those media which treat people respectfully. Perhaps we should encourage pupils to be as careful about buying magazines, or indeed newspapers, which buy long range pictures of famous people on holiday, as we do with products grown in a way that exploits people. Similarly, we should get young people to reflect on the nature of the relative poverty revealed by the determination of so many to make themselves rich via reality TV.

There isn't  after all, any difference in wrongness of exploitation – whether it’s a prince or princess, or at the other end of the range of privilege. In fact, it’s just possible that the worst exploitation of all is the one we are blind to. Whether that applies more to materially wealthy celebrities in magazines or 'wannabe's involved in musical talent shows is open to debate.

One thing is sure: if we don't teach young people what today's exploitation looks like - they won't know how to avoid it - as victims, consumers, or managers.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Lessons from Jimmy Savile

Last week it was revealed to widespread surprise and disappointment that the late Sir Jimmy Savile (DJ, TV presenter, celebrity and charity fundraiser) was the subject of multiple posthumous allegations of child abuse. However the most worrying revelation of all was surely the reporting, by Hugo Rifkind in The Times, that at least one such criminal offence had been detailed in Savile’s autobiography, published in 1974. (See

Rifkind’s conclusion, published without great commentary, is that Savile’s abuse of young women was not a secret, but it still went unremarked. He concludes: “I’m not sure what the lesson of all this is, but if there is one, it’s horribly bleak.” I suggest that there are, in fact, two conclusions – and one of them is indeed very bleak.

The first, and more cheerful, implication of the Savile-saga is that we are a great deal more sensitive to issues surrounding the violation of children’s rights by adults than we were.  In the 38 years since the publication of his book, a great deal has been achieved which has helped to protect children born since the 70s. Much progress has been made as a result of the persistence and enormous contribution of those who have lobbied government and established charities to support the victims of such abuse. Esther Rantzen is among the best known of those who have changed the common culture, so that what may have been unremarkable in 1974 would now be very remarkable indeed.

This does not mean, of course, that children are completely safe from violation by adults, not even in the UK. But it does represent a change in circumstances – the loss of a blindness – which is something to be celebrated.

There is, however, a second consequence. And it is bleak. One of the lessons here is that every generation has its blindness. That blindness is shockingly evident to succeeding generations. Sometimes it is risible. The fact that sensible people once thought that covering table legs was a way of preventing sexual passions from being inflamed is one example of successive generations being able to see the absurdity, and sometimes the hypocrisy, that was hidden at the time.

And so recent news begs this vital question: what is it that adults are currently doing to children, which in some way violates their rights, and is damaging to them – and which we are blind to? About which elements of our culture will commentators express incredulity that we failed to discern the damage to young lives to which we contributed, or at least failed to prevent?

Sitting in a provincial airport at the end of a conference last week, surrounded by fellow headteachers, I asked this question. We struggled to think of any which had the same potential for damage to young lives, but the consensus might surprise some readers. One head expressed it best when she suggested that the excessive supervision and control of young people by parents, who deny children independence and a normal scope of decision-making might be seen as risible by our children or grandchildren. It seems to me to be a very sensible starting point, but there may be other ideas which are equally worthy of consideration. 

Each answer may not, of course, be as important as continuing to ask the question.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Exam Problems - Known For 100 Years.

Recent events have made many in the UK ask profound questions about the nature of our examining system. At the same time, I asked to provide clearer references for a book to which I have contributed a chapter, and looked up some material on Max Weber. I had read this about a year ago, refreshing my university memory, but that memory had slid away once more. My re-reading made me realise that the structure and nature of Britain's exams give rise to the risk of poor outcomes, and we've known this since Weber was writing, about 100 years ago.

John Keane's book Public Life and Late Capitalism refers (in chapter 2) to four elements of Weber's theory: first, bureaucracy is a structure in which actions are precisely executed by an objective matrix of power,  which emanates from the top. Trust in decisions made lower down is completely absent; all activity is structured. Second, tasks are rigidly divided, regulated (in writing), and compartmentalised. Third, activity is dehumanised, and there is no regard for particular people or individuals. Fourth, such calculating, mechanised organisation ensures its own 'relentless advance'.

At the same time as recoiling in horror from this concept of 'efficiency', the vision it conjured up was entirely redolent of my own experience of marking public exams, which I am happy to say is more than a decade out of date. I do, however, still have interaction with exam boards, and I continue to recognise the picture of the post-industrial revolution factory organisation brought to examining which reduces participants to cogs in a giant machine, which recognises no one as an individual, and ploughs on through complex situations with relentless and destructive simplicity.

Furthermore, the criticisms recently advanced by the HMC, ASCL (unions of UK headteachers) and others following the GCSE debacle seem to be pointing towards the exam boards behaving in a Weberian manner.

The move to point by point mark schemes which compel all students to adopt the same methodology and logical pace as the examiner (and penalises heavily the brilliant but impatient pupil who do not want to define terms as they go along) will be familiar to many. The rigidity of process, the purity of which trumps the justice of any injured party in an appeal, are recognisable to headteachers. But what can we do about it?

I suggest that, if the lessons of a comparison of our exam system to Weberian bureaucracy can be learned, it means four things:
1. Exam boards need to be liberated to set exams which do not necessarily produce answers so mechanical that 'tick box'marking can assess them. Such liberation will also allow able candidates to be stretched, especially at A level.
2. Examiners must be paid enough to recruit appropriately expert examiners, who can be trusted to give marks on the basis of their appreciation of the whole of a candidate's answer.
3. Young people should take fewer exams. The unwieldy and ravenously data hungry demand of the bureaucratic exam board solution will always say that it needs a little more data for exams to be really reliable, but the truth is that the country is drowning under exam scripts in at least two months of every year.
4. Exam boards cannot be profit making companies. If they are, they will continue to seek out the most efficient mechanisms for attributing marks to exams - not the most accurate, nor the most meaningful. Perhaps exam boards should be nationalised, under a supervisory board of teachers, universities and employers' associations.

Would these three things make exams error-free? No, but they might make the system a bit less monolithic, a bit less unnavigable, and a bit more accountable.