Labour is found guilty of institutional racism

The Twitter-sphere is full of misinformation about the judgement of the Equality and Human Rights Commission about the Labour Party’s conduct towards Jews.  There are two rather serious misunderstandings doing the rounds.  The first is the mistaken claim that “the EHRC did not find that Labour was institutionally antisemitic”.  Here is an example, ‘liked’ by more than 1500 people :

 The EHRC report does not refer to ‘institutional racism’ at all.  However, the report does specifically and directly confine itself to actions which can be said to have been the responsibility of the Labour Party, as a collective organisation.   The methodology is explained in Annex 3.    It follows that report’s finding of unlawful conduct is, precisely, a finding against the Labour Party as an institution.  So yes, the Labour Party has been found guilty of institutional racism.

The second claim, as expressed by serial provocateur Chris Williamson, is based in a related misunderstanding: that “Despite cries about ‘institutional anti-Semitism’ and an ‘existential threat to British Jews’, the EHRC based its report on a tiny sample of 70 complaints made over a three-year period. It only found two examples of supposed ‘unlawful harassment’ – out of half a million members.”  The report did not look at the conduct of members (let alone that of former members such as Mr Williamson).    The actions of individuals, former members, and members communicating to other members in an individual capacity, were expressly excluded from the scope of the inquiry (p 127). What the EHRC was looking for was something different: actions which could legitimately be said to be conduct of the Labour Party, rather than of individuals.  And that is what the report has condemned.

I think there is some cause for regret here.  The report’s careful and measured tone doesn’t really get the point over to people who have convinced themselves, over a period of years, that the accusations of racism were fabricated – an allegation that is racist in itself.  There are references in the report to the suggestion that complaints about racism were ‘smears’ – that was a major part of the two examples of institutional harassment – but there is not the warning that was needed to explain to people that if they continued to maintain that position, it would amount to further harassment.  The EHRC needed to say it in terms.

 

Grading students’ work

Reversing previous decisions about the grades awarded to students whose education has been interrupted makes some kind of sense, but only some.  The problem is that we expect grades to mean three somewhat different things, all at once.

In the first place, grades are given for achievement – reflecting the knowledge, skills and competencies that students have demonstrated.  This is problematic in the current situation, because even if the grades are given fairly, they will reflect the position of students who will have done several months less work or development than previous cohorts have done.

Second, grades are supposed to represent potential – not what students have actually  achieved, but what they might be capable of doing with further development.  If present achievement gave us a clear guide to the future, that might work – but it doesn’t, and there’s always been the suspicion that it says more about the preparedness of the school and the resources that school students are offered than it does of the abilities of the pupil.  This was a problem before the pandemic, and it will be a problem long after it.  The truth is that we only have very unreliable predictors of what students might be capable of – A levels, in particular, often make over-fine distinctions between very narrow bands across the grades, and are a weak guide to university performance.

Third, the grades represent opportunities, and impose limits on those opportunities.  If a student wants to study medicine, for example, the opening will depend more on high academic performance than it does on personal experience, sensitivity, commitment or interpersonal skills (the sort of thing that we used explore in interviews for social work places).

The emphasis on opportunity is the argument that has carried the day.   In Scotland, the decision will make it possible for more than 3000 students to go into a university course they wouldn’t otherwise have been admitted to.  Many people will look at that and say: why not?   But there is an objection: increased opportunities within the current system might just mean that people have more opportunity to fail.  The French system opens doors to everyone with the Baccalaureat, but it fails half the students after the first year.  In the UK, the institutions with the most liberal admissions policies are also likely to be the lower status institutions, and they may lose  up to 20% of their students as the course goes on.   It doesn’t follow that we’re wasting those students’ time, but  far too many university courses work on the principle that students must ‘sink or swim’.  I’d be more confident in the process if at the outset there were more engagement with students and more emphasis on developing the skills they’ll need to qualify.

My private thanks to the NHS

I didn’t join the final ‘clap for the NHS’.  On that day, I had gone for blood tests in the early afternoon.  The medical practice is 45 minutes away from the nearest hospital and labs, so analysis took a little time, but I was called back to go directly to to Victoria Hospital, in Kirkcaldy, within two hours of seeing the GP.

The care I received was exemplary.  It had first to be confirmed that I did not have Covid-19.   After that, everything worked as it was supposed to.  The GP identified the problem and took the necessary steps to deal with it, at great speed.  There was a coordinated response from a range of different consultants and specialities,  supported by specialist services in Edinburgh and Southampton.  The nursing staff in particular were thoroughly professional, warm, polite and good-humoured.  What I owe them all is immeasurable.

After the lockdown, will we be a better society? I doubt it.

Some accounts of the social changes taking place are highly optimistic about what they can mean for society.  We won’t make the same mistakes again, the argument runs.  We won’t pare public provision down to the bone.  We won’t close down social protection.  The response to the virus shows a sense of solidarity, of mutual responsibility, of common purpose.

I wrote my book, Thinking collectively, about this kind of issue.  The book runs through a series of arguments for community and collective action.  But the starting point for that argument was a consideration of collectivism as a substantive reality.  Everything we do is conditioned by our relationships with other people, and organisations and groups are fundamental to the way we live.  Given that position, I’m not about to express surprise about the degree to which people have tried to help others in their community, or put themselves forward as public servants or volunteers – that’s exactly what we should expect.  It’s basic to who we are, and what we are.

The current process of social distancing is a threat to the social fabric.  It implies a degree of solitude, or isolation.  It implies a degree of dissociation from other people.  It depends on ‘atomisation’ – turning us into separate, distinctly individual units, centred on the household.   That threatens our engagement  with other people – how we do things, how we think about ourselves, and how we interact with other people.   It would be nice to think that all this will lead to everyone wanting to do the opposite when the restrictions are lifted, but there’s little reason to suppose that will be the case.  There are famous accounts of the atomisation of American society – David Riesman’s book, The lonely crowd, or Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone.  That was the world we were heading towards before this crisis happened.  The problem with social distancing is, bluntly, that people may well get used to it.  The longer it lasts, the more likely it is to accelerate the process of individualisation, putting us at a distance from everyone else.   We should all be concerned.

 

HS2: the wrong project, from the wrong place, to the wrong places

I don’t claim to know anything about transport, though in a personal blog ignorance should never be considered an insuperable obstacle to inspired pontification.  I do however know a bit about regeneration, a bit more about economic development, and more about government planning failures than is healthy.

Let me offer three simple criteria.  First, all projects, minor as well as major,  have to add value.  If they duplicate facilities which are already there, any improvements they offer are marginal (in the economic sense) – not necessarily something to be dismissed, but something that needs to be compared with improvements in current provision to see whether the gain is actually worthwhile.  The London to Birmingham route already has some of the best services available in the UK, on both road and rail.  Most of our major transport links are aimed at London.  By contrast, there are large areas of the UK with poor communications and transport links.  That’s being identified with the “North”, though apparently for this purpose Birmingham (which arguably has  the best connections after London) is being treated as if it was in the “North”.

Second, projects have to serve  the largest number of people possible – that always has a massive impact on the cost-benefit analysis.  Part of that, the greatest gain,  relates to the marginal benefit.  The way to maximise the marginal benefit is to put any route into places which don’t at present have one – creating a new infrastructure, rather than developing an old one.  One of the standard objections from conservationists to new projects is that they create new demands, new traffic, and new lines of communication.  That’s exactly what we should want to happen.  As things stand,  we have been developing an infrastructure around airports – road access, car parks, transport routes, hospitality, business parks and so forth.  That is the sort of development that a high-speed rail link ought to be encouraging.

The other part, serving the largest number of people possible, implies finding a route that   will be accessible to the widest possible population.  For a high-speed rail network, that implies covering the longest distance possible, but it also applies a route that will be within a reasonably accessible distance – say 30 miles, or 90 minutes – of the largest number of people possible.  Putting these two issues together, if there is only going to be one high-speed line, that would imply a route well to the west of London.   I don’t have the information base to work out just what that would imply, but a route down the spine of the country would probably run from somewhere north of Southampton to somewhere north of Falkirk, with stops at something like 50-60 mile intervals.

Third,  avoid urban land.  That is partly because of the cost,  always a major part of any assessment of value.  Land is expensive, and land in cities costs more.  So a cost-effective high-speed route would not be running to and from the centre of cities, but  past them, using the less expensive green field sites wherever possible.  The other reason, possibly more powerful still, is that it this approach allows scope for development.  Putting in feeder routes is the next stage, for local action, but the advantage of avoiding city centes is that there is room for that kind of development.

The core problem with the HS2 project is not that its costs are increasing: that was built into the plan.  It’s the wrong development,  going the wrong way.

 

Sociology wanders off the path

I’ve recently read a couple of sociological works that make me wonder what people in the discipline think it’s about.  One was a collection of introductory readings by Giddens and Sutton, which seemed to be largely focused on people’s experience of life.  There’s a justification for this approach to sociology in Wright Mills’ book, The Sociological Imagination, but it’s never enough simply to say what life is like.   Now, this is in fairness an introductory collection: so how do you introduce people to a discipline?  It seems to me that any taster has to give people a sense of the approach, include something about  the analytical process involved, and perhaps convey a little  of the surprise   that comes of looking in ways that aren’t just a matter of ‘common sense’.  Descriptions of everyday life don’t cut it.  If you don’t generalise about social experience, and don’t analyse the concepts you’re using, you’re left with what Ruth Glass once called “the poor sociologist’s substitute for the novel”.

The other text was Mel Bartley’s book on Health Inequality, which had this to say about Talcott Parsons.

An influential school of sociology in the United States has long understood inequality in terms of a theory called “structural-functionalism”.  This school of thought was led by Talcott Parsons, who put forward a clear logic for social inequality.  According to Parsons, people naturally have unequal abilities.  Society needs its most able members to be attracted to the jobs that are (according to this theory) most important for its basic functions, such as law, medicine, science and senior management in industry  … Any society will offer high rewards to attract people into ‘functionally essential’ jobs.

Now, I can’t say that no-one has ever adopted such an asinine view of the world: Herbert Spencer, who was popular in the USA in the nineteenth century, argued for ‘survival of the fittest’.  But it’s certainly not true of Talcott Parsons, who as far as I know said nothing of the kind.  He was anti-racist and anti-fascist.  He may have been too favourably inclined to the US system of government as an ideal, but he argued that obstacles to equality of opportunity were dysfunctional and that the equality of citizens  was critical to social inclusion.  The view that’s being criticised here (properly understood as ‘Optimism’) has nothing at all to do with structural-functionalism.

Parsons was a terrible communicator and he’s a pain to read. Nevertheless, he did have something to say; I’d still get more entertainment value from being stuck in a lift with The social system than I did from Girl, Woman, Other.  Try this appreciation from Daniel Bell, which explains some of Parson’s central ideas in simple terms.  If you’re wondering how it relates to what Mel Bartley says about Parsons – it doesn’t.

 

Sumption on the rule of law

While Jonathan Sumption’s Reith lectures offer some food for thought, some of his claims are  questionable.  This is from this morning’s lecture:

Democracies operate on the implicit basis that although the majority has authorised policies which a minority deplores, these differences are transcended by their common acceptance of the legitimacy of its decision-making processes.

Well … up to a point, m’lord.  It’s true that democracies depend heavily on legitimate processes in order to deliver legitimate outcomes. But it’s also true that those processes are not enough in themselves to ensure legitimacy.  Majorities, and apparently legitimate processes, authorised policies by Hitler and Mussolini.  Sumption cites James Madison in another context; this is what Madison has to say about majority rule:

It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure…. In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects … In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger …

It’s fundamental to democracy that the rights of minorities are protected; if they are not, it is no longer a democracy.

Sumption’s view of the legal process, oddly for someone in his position, veers at times towards an ideal.

Law is rational. Law is coherent. Law is analytically consistent and rigorous.

If law was rational and coherent, it would be predictable.  We should be able to state with confidence what the law is as soon as we have seen an unequivocal statement in a statute, without waiting for confirmation from the courts.  Look at Sumption’s own comment on a Supreme Court decision:

The majority’s reason, however dressed up, was that they didn’t approve of the power that parliament had, on the face of it, conferred on ministers. Three of the judges thought that it was such a bad idea that parliament could not possibly have meant what it plainly said.

If the law was consistent and rigorous, it should be the case that the Supreme Court would deliver consistent, clear thematic judgements – but even when  they say they agree with each other, they can’t bring themselves to say the same things.

More fundamentally, if the law was consistent and rigorous, whether or not people’s interests are protected shouldn’t depend on whether or not they contest it.  Courts routinely rubber-stamp oppressive orders relating to debt simply because the debtors don’t make a submission. The big utility companies notoriously can afford to play the odds – losing a few cases they don’t seriously argue about because they routinely win so many without an argument.  The law, as Sumption says, has certain biases: “in favour of individual rights and traditional social expectations “.  But it also has a ferocious bias towards people who can afford to hire lawyers.

 

The age of criminal responsibility: our legislators leap into action

The Scottish Parliament has agreed to raise the age of criminal responsibility from eight to twelve.  Now there is pressure on the English government to raise criminal responsibility from the age of ten, which is where it’s been since 1963.   Under English law, there are special rules governing children aged 10-14, and there is even talk of raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14.

It’s more than forty years since I studied law, and at the time everyone was confidently saying that the age of criminal responsibility was set to go up any day now. (One social policy textbook of the time said it already had done, because the author had no reason to suppose it wouldn’t have happened by the time the book came out.)   The proposal to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12 was initially made, if I have it right, by the 1960 Ingleby Committee, nearly sixty years ago.  In England, the Children and Young Person’s Act 1963 raised the age from eight to ten (s.16.1); and then the 1969 Children and Young Person’s Act raised it to fourteen (s.4).  You may reasonably blink at the last part of that, because it never happened.  The Act was passed, but it needed a commencement order to come into force,  and the order was never made – basically, no Secretary of State had the courage to do anything about it.  Eventually the provision was removed by the 1991 Criminal Justice Act, which had a tidying-up provision to cancel laws that hadn’t been brought into force.

I’ve heard it said that making Acts of Parliament is a national sport; no-one should take them too seriously.  It’s a reminder that campaigns can’t afford to stop when the legislation is passed.  It’s also perhaps a reminder of something Churchill once said about another country.  You can always rely on our governments to do the right thing, once they’ve exhausted all the other alternatives.

Research is not a private matter

I was in Italy this week, taking a view of research ethics for a seminar organised by Pro-Res , a project to develop guidance on ethics for the EU.  The seminar was under Chatham House rules, which means I can’t comment on other contributions, but I can share my own, which I ran under the title “Research is not a private matter”.  The slides are here.

Many students in UK universities are not being well served

Universities are in the news because of ‘grade inflation‘: the government is taking steps to penalise universities who award too many top grades.  Other recent coverage has focused on plagiarism and essay mills.  Over the course of my career, as a teacher in some institutions, and as an external examiner in several others, I’ve seen standards fall while marks improve.  Part of this has been a change in what marks mean.  A competent, sound piece of work without special merit used to be given a 2:2 mark; now it is routinely given a 2.1.  A piece of work that had some deficiencies but enough to be passed used to get a third class; now it would receive a 2.2, sometimes better. The third class mark in many institutions has almost disappeared, and is mainly arrived at only because results are being averaged.

Some standards have genuinely improved.  It has become much easier for a student to find a range of resources to support an essay, and word-processing and graphics programmes mean that standards of presentation are somewhat higher than they were thirty years ago.  However, in most other respects there has been a fall in the standards achieved.  When I was an undergraduate, I routinely did 36 essays or more in a year, plus unseen exams – that’s how I learned to write.  By the time I started teaching, the students were doing 12.  Now, many do six or less – so they write less in a whole degree than I had to in a year.  Some universities have reduced the number of assessments but increased the number of words required in an assessment, apparently in the belief that more words will give equivalent coverage.  That doesn’t work, because with more words there’s still only one exercise in structuring and ordering material, and students can’t develop through iterative feedback. The fewer exercises that people engage with, the less they learn; the less feedback they get, and the slower it comes, the less opportunity they have to improve and develop. Clearly, if students aren’t given the same opportunities to learn and develop, they can’t achieve develop the skills, or achieve the same standards, that students did in the past.  That’s true regardless of some of the other factors which may affect standards – such as students having to divide time between college and work to fund themselves.  This is not the fault of students; it reflects  a marked deterioration in the service that universities offer, and limits on what students are able to achieve as a result.

The reduction in the number of exercises that students do is part of a broader problem.  When I started teaching, four educational principles were widely accepted.

  • Universities were supposed to show students how to learn, not what to say.
  • Active learning – where students do something, like writing or talking – is better and more effective than passive, where they sit and listen.
  • Teaching has to be student-centred – the central issue is that the student has to learn how to learn, not that the teacher has to deliver a product.
  • The curriculum has to be designed as a structured learning experience.  The development of expertise in subjects and disciplines depends on specialisation and depth, not just on extra information.

Much of this has gone by the board.  Curriculum design has given way to ‘cafeteria’ courses, or pick and mix.  (That also allows researchers to pass off narrow topics of personal interest as courses for students, which is simply bad practice; that type of course is centred on the predilections of teachers, not the needs of students.)     Credit accumulation and transfer generally means that students who have acquired a knowledge base get nodded through – but what matters is the skills base, and that’s a different matter. Some universities now carry forward marks from courses taken in the year before finals  – that must mean that no progression is expected.

Inevitably, as the numbers of students increase, students don’t get the same treatment as they would in smaller cohorts.  Lectures are more common, seminars much less so, and personal tutorials rarer still – the larger the student cohort, the more difficult it is to make the time available.  Students have limited personal contact with teachers.  Beyond that, in most institutions, the sheer numbers of students mean that frequent assessment and rapid feedback is out of the question.   This hasn’t happened by design or deliberate action; it’s just that if numbers go up, and the methods and approaches don’t change with them, the experience of students and teachers is going to be different.

Expanding the numbers of students has happened without a serious rethink of traditional educational processes, and that’s had a pervasive effect on how universities operate. A colleague once suggested to me that I was talking about ‘boiling a frog’, and I promised him I’d steal the phrase.  People will put up with things done slowly that they wouldn’t tolerate if they were done all at once.  I’m not sure at this late stage that anything can be done about it, but many students are getting a terrible deal.