Saturday, 24 July 2010

Tongue tied kids-blame the parents not Facebook.

Facebook registered its five hundred millionth member this week, that’s five hundred million, the sort of figure you usually associate these days with the gloomy economic forecasts of a government that likes to make the voters flesh crawl.

The social networking site which launched in 2004 has added a hundred million members in the past six months alone. At this rate the whining claim made by the few teenagers not allowed to go to the digital party that ‘everyone’s on Facebook’ might soon be true.

The site has, in its short history, had its fair share of controversy, focussing mostly on its refusal to install a ‘panic button’ to allow younger users to report incidents of possible online grooming by paedophiles not to mention the vile tribute site to murderer Raoul Moat that briefly appeared last week.

Even so Facebook has been that rarest of all things, an online business that actually works, putting it ahead of other such sites like Myspace and Bebo, the only site that comes close to matching its appeal is Twitter.

Facebook and Twitter share something else apart from the love of the internet generation; the near universal loathing of the British media in its red top and broadsheet incarnations. Both are cited as destructive forces threatening to turn the next generation into dead eyed zombies, this week the BBC devoted a whole slot on its news channel to a debate over whether or not social networking sites are robbing teenagers of the ability to communicate in the ‘real world’ that never rose much above the level of the saloon bar.

Its possible to see in this the ugly face of an old moral panic dressed up in shiny new digital clothing. I’m old enough to remember when colour television, video recorders and Channel Four were all at various times seen as harbingers of imminent social chaos. With the exception of the television channel that gave the world Big Brother the threat was noticeable only by its failure to materialize.

At the risk of sounding like the sort of reactionary who started the rumour in the first place if today’s teens are fatter, more insular and less chatty than their parents were at the same age then I blame the parents, and not just for letting them sit in front of a computer all day.

It was parents not teenagers who turned a proper caution about the risk of abuse into a paranoia that has poisoned the trust that is the mark of a civilized society. It is parents who have become so obsessed with risk that climbing trees and even crossing the road unaccompanied is something many youngsters don’t experience until they leave home and go to university.

No prizes for guessing who it was that turned a generation of children into pampered pets ferried from Pony Club to piano lessons and back again without ever experiencing the combination of boredom and longing that make life’s good times truly memorable. You guessed it; the parents and while they were at it they turned the education system into an obstacle course of mostly meaningless tests so that they could brag about their little darling’s grades even though the education the poor creatures received as a result was almost totally without value.

Faced with that sort of pressure on a daily basis is it any wonder that a whole generation seems to have retreated into the safety of the virtual world?

I’m no lover of Facebook, as I pointed out last week their response to the furore over the tribute to Raoul Moat was both pious and irresponsible, but when it or anything else is damned by a lazy and self serving media egged on by the political establishment it is a devil for whom I am able to have a fair degree of sympathy.

Friday, 16 July 2010

No more heroes-just thugs like ‘Moaty.’

Piles of filling station bought flowers mouldering in a heap, attached to each one a card professing love and admiration for someone the people who laid the flowers have never met, it’s raining and the writing on the cards is starting to run. This could be outside Kensington Palace in the summer of 1997 or just about anywhere in the wake of a newsworthy tragedy at any time since.

In fact the tributes turning into mulch on the municipal grass are lying on a riverbank in the Northumbrian town of Rothbury and have been laid in honour of Raoul Moat, a low rent thug turned celebrity murderer.

It feels like taking a dose of cod liver oil served up on an oversize silver spoon but I find myself agreeing with David Cameron when he said at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday of this week: ‘I cannot understand any wave, however small, of sympathy for this man.’ Like Mr Cameron and most other people I am able to see Moat for what he was ‘a callous murderer, full stop, end of story.’

The trouble is that for a large section of the population the full stop Moat’s miserable life came to last Friday night is part of a different and very disturbing story. One that paints him as a heroic rebel and was celebrated by a Facebook page with 35,000 members, most of whom left illiterate comments supporting Moat for standing up to the authorities.

The page has since been deleted but not before a spokeswoman for Facebook had piously told the press that since the site encourages discussion of issues in the media: ‘we sometimes find people discussing topics others may find distasteful, however that in itself is not a reason to stop a debate from happening.’ Thank you for clearing that up, I know how free speech works, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry about just what some people use their freedom to speak about.

Ok granting the status of ‘legend’ to men like Raoul Moat is nothing new, in the eighteenth century huge crowds turned out to cheer highwaymen to the gallows and people sang ballads about their crimes that turned them into decaffeinated romantic heroes for people who had never heard of romanticism. Later cinema audiences thrilled to the gun toting antics of screen gangsters such as James Cagney and Edward G Robinson.

The difference between those instances and what we’re seeing here is that an integral part of the myth of the highwayman or the gangster was that sooner or later they faced the consequences of their actions, be that at the end of a rope or lying on the steps of a church as their moll tells a stone faced cop that they ‘used to be a somebody.’ Lionizing a criminal is silly but harmless subversion so long as it is framed by an understanding that in real life people have to be answerable for their actions, when that breaks down things turn deadly.

Yes Moat had his problems, someone should have listened to his pleas for psychiatric help, the police were guilty of some degree of grandstanding during the week it took to corner him; but this can never excuse what he did.

Even though most people in Britain didn’t write messages of support to Raoul Moat on Facebook or lay flowers at the shrine erected in his honour we should all share some of the blame for his being turned into a hero in the first place, not least because we have all conspired in turning the notion of heroism from a Homeric ideal into a label applied to inept footballers, self indulgent celebrities and now violently dysfunctional thugs.

If the lionization of a man like Raoul Moat is really the sort of ‘legend’ our society wants to tell itself at the start of the twenty first century; then we’ve got serious problems.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

Spare the rod to promote learning.

Sit up straight! Stop sniggering at the back of the room! Head teachers in England are to be given greater powers to search pupils suspected of bringing weapons into school and given clearer guidance on restraining disruptive students as part of a government drive to improve behaviour.

They’ve certainly got their work cut out, according to Ofstead behaviour in one in six schools is no better than ‘satisfactory’, last year 8130 students were permanently excluded from school, 2230 of those were excluded for violent assault on a teacher or another student. Bad behaviour, it seems, isn’t just a problem; it’s a full blown epidemic.

Announcing the plans Schools Minister Nick Gibb said there was too much ‘low level disruption’ in schools and that his aim was to ensure that parents were able to feel ‘the classroom to which they send their children is a safe place where that can learn.’

Alan Steer, a former education advisor to the Labour government, welcomed the proposals, including granting anonymity to teachers against whom allegations of assault have been made, but described elements of the programme such as the use of after school detentions as ‘fluff.’ The real way to improve student behaviour was, he said, ‘to continually raise the standards of teaching.’

Chris Keates of teaching union NASUWT also expressed concern about the use of ‘reasonable’ force to restrain disruptive students, saying it might put teachers at risk if malicious allegations made by students who ‘know their rights but not their responsibilities.’

There is no question that discipline is an important part of the learning process, but in what appears to be an attempt to play to the gallery of popular opinion, the government risks making the mistake of thinking a ‘tough’ teacher and a ‘good’ teacher are one and the same. They aren’t, as anyone who didn’t go to Eton knows only too well.

We can all remember the tough teachers, every school however liberal had at least one, from our schooldays, martinets who ruled with a rod of iron, but were they the teachers from whom we learnt the most? Probably not, as Alan Steer points out discipline can make a students stay in their seats, but only good, meaning engaging, teaching can make them learn and want to go on doing so throughout their lifetime.

Sadly the sort of teaching that engages students imagination, often because it strays from, but never entirely abandons, the set curriculum and even, horror of horrors, encourages them to think for themselves has been the biggest casualty of the slow collapse of our education system over the past quarter century. Schools long ago stopped being seats of learning and became instead vast machines dedicated to churning out statistics for bureaucrats.

Bad behaviour is the most noticeable price we pay for allowing this to happen, particularly amongst boys for whom sitting cooped up in a classroom is a form of torture when what they most want to do is be active. Even the well behaved students lose out under the current system because rather than learning how to value knowledge and use it as a buttress for independent thought they learn instead how to regurgitate key words and pre digested answers. Useful skills if you’re going to be a junior minister, but not in any other field.

By all means give teachers the power to impose discipline in their classrooms, but if we really want to solve the problem of low level disruption the government has to take the bigger step of setting them free to engage their students in something more than just preparing for an endless round of exams.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

A farewell to ‘New Football.’

As it turned out we didn’t have to worry about penalties because the Germans managed to beat us four one in ninety minutes. On Sunday afternoon as the nation sat sulking by the BBQ you could have been forgiven for thinking that it was the summer breeze ruffling the red and white bunting above our collective head, in fact it was the death rattle of ‘New Football’, the slightly older sibling of New Labour.

The similarities between the two are really quite uncanny, they both have their origins in a defeat that changed everything, owe much of their success to the influence of Rupert Murdoch and now resemble an awkward artefact from the nineties we’d really rather like to forget about.

Don’t get me wrong in ‘New Football’, in its way, did a lot of good, when Bobby Robson’s team lost to Germany in the semi final of Italia 90 football was a sport in a seemingly terminal decline, the injection of television money that followed the creation of the Premier League in 1992 allowed crumbling grounds to be transformed into modern sports venues with the toilet facilities to match.

New Football brought new people to the game, mostly middle class families, as a result the hooligan element which had been bringing the game into disrepute for the previous couple of decades were pushed to the sidelines. They haven’t gone away, but now we can see them for what they always were, a collection of pathetic Neanderthals dragging their tattooed knuckles along the ground on a long march to nowhere.

The trouble with New Football, much like its political sibling, is that its excesses and distortions of reality will be better remembered than any good it might have done.

The stock in trade of the Premier League and its subsequent incarnations was, from the start, high grade hype, no game could be merely important it had to be billed as an epic contest in which the fates of entire nations would be decided. As a result hype rapidly turned, as it so often does, into hubris, and even journeyman players started to believe themselves to be members of a ‘golden generation.’

As for the elite players, the likes of Rooney, Lampard, Beckham et al, they seemed to morph overnight from being people who were like the supported paying on the turnstiles in every respect apart from what they could do with a ball at their feet into jaded superstars watching the world they thought owed them a living sweep past the tinted windows of their top of the range Bentley’s and BMW’s.

They forgot the most important thing about success in sport or any other field, that achieving it has more to do with hard work than innate talent. By the time the current World Cup rolled around they believed themselves to have a divine right to win, then came the worst campaign mounted by an England team since we first entered the contest in 1950 and hubris turned into halitosis overnight.

New Football might be dead, but football is very much alive and kicking, there will always be people who surprise in themselves a desire to wear a replica shirt and stand in the rain watching their team grind our a goalless draw. The relationship between players and supporters, in the UK anyway, has changed forever though, the gods have failed and if they want the rest of us to keep the faith they will have to transform themselves back into ordinary mortals who don’t demand rewards and respect as their right.

Football may not have come home after all, but it has come back down to earth with a bump; in the long run that may be no bad thing.