Month: February 2011

On High Horses, and Getting Down from Them


I don't believe that Michael Gove and Katharine Birbalsingh are evil. I just think that they're fundamentally wrong.

Yesterday, I read an article in the Guardian. Specifically, it was in the G2 section. It was entitled “Katharine Birbalsingh: ‘I spoke at the Tory Conference, so I must be evil'”. Upon seeing the title, I made a joke that my biggest problem with her was that I couldn’t pronounce her name. Then I read the article, and realised how wrong that statement was.


For those of you who don’t know her, Katharine Babalsingh is the state school deputy-head who gave a speech (to standing ovation) at the 2010 Conservative Party Conference, basically saying how awful the state school she worked at was, and how right Education Secretary Michael Gove’s changes to the education system were. She was then sacked from her post by the school for bringing negative publicity on them, and the school will now be closing, largely due to lack of pupils applying.

The G2 article was published in anticipation of her book, soon to be released, which as far as I can gather is meant to be a fictionalised account of her life in teaching which will persuade all of us how awful state schools are. Except, judging from the interview, she has some of the most contemptuous views I’ve seen.

Now, let me nail my colours to the wall here. I was educated in the state school system. I attended a state primary school. I attended a state secondary school. I got good GCSEs (three A*s, seven As). I attended a state sixth-form college, and studied the International Baccalaureate. I am now in the third year of a Law degree, at the end of which I expect to get either a 2:1 or a first. I can only assume that I’m not the failing student Ms Barbalsingh is talking about.

Which is fine, I’m not saying that there aren’t state school children who are failing, of course there are. But Birbalsingh’s conclusions seem to be based on broad, sweeping, and at times rather insulting generalisations. Take this gem, for example:

…she claims that whereas private school kids read five or six novels in a year, “In a state school they might read two chapters, and then watch the film,”

Now I can tell you from the start that this is a) a generalisation, and b) an untrue one. Private school children may read more novels, I can’t testify to this; I never have, and never would, attend a private school. But to make a blanket claim that state school children don’t read is thoroughly insulting to the vast majority of us who do. When I was in year 7, I was reading the novels of Anne McCaffrey. At that point I was the exception. A year, two years later, the vast majority of my classmates would be reading for their own pleasure and personal advancement.

And I’m by no means holding up my secondary school as a shining example of what a state school should be. In many ways it was a shithole. But it wasn’t as bad (and I suspect very few in this country are as bad) as the picture Ms Birbalsingh painted.

Another thing I take objection to, is passages like this:

…inspectors are “now obsessed with making lessons ‘fun’ and ‘interactive’, through endless games and group work and the use of flashy technology”, traditional teaching methods are penalised, even if they engage the pupils and get good results.

Again, I’m sorry, but that is fundamentally rubbish. “Traditional” teaching methods (by which I can only assume she means the teacher lecturing to the class, and the class taking notes, unless she’s actually and rather slyly advocating a return to corporal punishment) are still used. They’re used where they’re appropriate, which is for the most part in heavily fact-based subjects. But even where new “fun” and “interactive” methods are used, I don’t see the downside. If they engage the children, if they get them interested in learning, then what’s the problem?

Michael Gove has, with his English Baccalaureate and other such measures, been trying to move the country back to a 1950s model of education. I realise that the 1950s are a glowing model of what the world should be like for the Tories, but the world has moved on. What was true then, is not necessarily any more. And what worked then, is not necessarily appropriate now. Privileging “academic” subjects like science, maths and history looks very nice, but on the flip-side penalises other subjects like the arts (which, honestly, this government seems to have it in for).

In the end, I just disagree with the lie that Katharine Birbalsingh is perpetuating. There are problems in state schools. Reform is needed. But this is not the right direction. I’m offended by the sweeping generalisations she makes, which as the author of the article points out serve only to demonstrate that her experience stems from a very limited base. Birbalsingh wants to be painted as a martyr, but so far as I can see, she did draw (perhaps undue, certainly inappropriate) negative attention to the school she worked at, and is likely responsible for its subsequent closure. So her dismissal, from where I’m sat, doesn’t seem unjustified.

I don’t think Michael Gove is evil, Katharine. I just think he’s wrong. And likewise, I don’t think you’re evil. I just think that you’re every bit as wrong on this subject as he is. So get off your sodding high horse woman.

You Can Take My Freedom, But You’ll Never Take My…Voting Rights?

The judgement in Hirst v UK has brought up an important constitutional issue relating to the Human Rights Act 1998, the ECHR, and prisoners' voting rights

As I type this, I am listening to the debate going on in the House of Commons, on the voting rights of prisoners. It has particular significance to me, as on Friday morning I’ll be giving a presentation on the topic. So I thought I’d knock out a quick blog entry, outlining the issues and what I think of them.

The whole thing arises out of the case Hirst v United Kingdom*, before the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg. In this case, the Strasbourg court declared that the UK’s blanket ban on prisoners being allowed to vote was unlawful under the convention. The part of the convention relied upon is Article 3 of the First Protocol (Not to be confused with Article 3 of the convention proper), which says:

“The High Contracting Parties undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot, under conditions which will ensure the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature.”

In explaining the issue, I think it’s important to lay to bed a misconception about the meaning of this protocol, and of the Strasbourg judgement. Firstly, the judgement applies only to a blanket ban on prisoner voting. So that isn’t to say that going along with the judgement means that we have to give all prisoners, no matter the length of their sentence or the severity of their crime, but rather that we can’t automatically remove the right to vote from everyone who is imprisoned.

Already in the debate it has been suggested (by Conservative MPs, of course) that the problem is with the Convention, and thus the solution is to withdraw from it. With respect (or not, whatever you like), that’s rubbish. The ECHR has been a force for good in the area of Human Rights for over 50 years. Various Tories have found problems with the idea of the Strasbourg court policing Human Rights in the UK. I’m not entirely sure of why -the court has invariably got some issues wrong, but then so have domestic courts- however I suspect it might have to do with another misconception, namely that the European Court of Human Rights is part of the EU. It isn’t.

My own feelings of this is that I don’t want to see the franchise extended to prisoners. As I see it, there are a few reasons for restricting their right to vote. The first is in relation to punishment. When a person is sent to prison, upon conviction of a criminal offence, a number of their rights are suspended. This includes the right to liberty, under Article 5. There is no objection to that.

Whilst a person is a prisoner, a convicted criminal, they are undergoing a process of rehabilitation. If that is the case, then surely it follows that a person, for the duration of their rehabilitation, is not considered fit to be a functioning member of society. If that is so, what stake do they have in the governance of that society?

My own thoughts on how to address this problem manifest in two suggestions.

The first is that we give the matter over to the domestic judiciary. Rather than have an automatic voting ban upon incarceration, a revocation of voting rights should be at the discretion of the sentencing judge. This, the Hirst judgement strongly hints, would be sufficient to meet the requirements under the ECHR. It would also allow the popular will of the people to take effect through the judges, who by all indications share the distaste for prisoners being able to vote.

Secondly, rather than giving discretion directly to the judges, the ban on voting might instead be altered so that it applies only to convictions of trials on indictment. This means that it would apply only to cases tried in the Crown Court, rather than in the Magistrates’ court. Since the maximum sentence in the Magistrates’ court is 12 months incarceration, this would mean that only the least serious offences leave the offenders still able to vote.

But of course, I’m just a lowly law student, and this is a contentious matter. I welcome anyone who wishes to comment on my views, however.

*(2006) 42 EHRR 41

February Issue of VideoVista Goes Live!

Battlestar Galactica spin-off Caprica

Yup, it’s that time of the month again!

This month, in Tony Lee’s DVD review webzine, I have reviewed season 1.0 of Battlestar Galactica spin-off Caprica. It’s an interesting experience reviewing TV series on DVD, as generally people don’t tend to sit down and watch the whole thing in one go, as I end up doing.

But yes, you can see my review here, and please feel free to leave any feedback as a comment on this blog.

On Bigotry and Misinformation (AKA The Daily Mail)

The ever-helpful Mail even include an illustration, so that it's readers can understand what "shouting" is. Judging by the comments on the article, they probably need it.

Given that Melanie “THE GAYS ARE COMING!!!” Phillips is going to be on Question Time tonight, I thought it would be appropriate to post this first.

The Daily Mail isn’t widely regarded as being a stickler for accuracy, so me reporting that one of their articles was inaccurate probably isn’t going to surprise a lot of you. But it’s the nature and scale of this misrepresentation which I think warrants outrage and a whole blog entry dedicated to it.

This is the article in question.

Now, what it’s about is a legal case. Specifically, it’s about Yemshaw v London Borough of Hounslow. The facts of the case are basically that a woman left her husband, claiming she had been the subject of domestic violence. Local Authorities are under a statutory obligation (under the Housing (Homeless Persons) Act 1977) to house any persons homeless, other than those homeless by their own intention. Under the same act, anyone homeless because of violence or threat thereof isn’t voluntarily homeless.

The issue here, was that Ms Yemshaw’s partner hadn’t physically harmed her, nor threatened to. Instead, the abuse she suffered was emotional. Now, it has been widely accepted throughout family law for a long while now that “violence” and “abuse” need not be exclusively physical. The same phraseology has been interpreted similarly in relation to domestic violence itself, child protection, custody matters, divorce law.

So when the Supreme Court gave a judgement (led by Baroness Hale) confirming that the statute was to be interpreted as including non-physical abuse, it wasn’t a surprise. Well, it wasn’t to anyone familiar with family law. But the Daily Mail got hold of it, and now it’s somehow a shocking and drastic change in the law.

Let me clarify: the Mail claim that now people can be excluded from their homes for shouting at their partner. Not only is this a massive jump from what the case actually passed judgement on, it’s factually ridiculous. Shouting at your partner won’t allow them to get an occupation order (which is what I’m fairly certain the Mail means). Not unless it constitutes emotional or mental abuse, which to be honest is gonna have to be some fairly vile treatment- and even then courts are reluctant to grant it.

So what the Daily Mail are actually up in arms about, is that the Supreme Court has interpreted the word “violence” in the Housing Act 1996 consistently with every other interpretation of it elsewhere.

Frankly, it’s not surprising. The Mail has history here. In 1995, they launched a campaign over the summer to wreck legislation which had been all but passed, and which would have given substantial protection to victims of domestic violence. They claimed that it would result in gold-digging girlfriends to oust respectable men from their homes. Which was frankly rubbish. Aside from the fact that it wouldn’t have been anything like that simple, respectable men do not beat their partners.

The present legislation protecting victims of domestic violence is complicated and offers comparatively little to victims who aren’t married to their abuser. And as well as that, the Family Homes and Domestic Violence Bill was brought before parliament as a result of a report by the Law Commission. A report headed by Brenda Hoggett. Who nowadays is better known as Baroness Hale of Richmond, the member of the Supreme Court who gave the lead speech in what was to all intents and purposes a unanimous judgement. And who the Mail call the “woman judge” who says that men and women can be thrown out of their homes for shouting at their partners.

I’m not sure what the Mail has against Hale, or against domestic violence protection, but it’s very worrying that they’ve managed to take an uncontroversial judgement and make the most ridiculous fuss over it. It might be funny, if it wasn’t so damn serious.