Friday, 28 September 2012

Arrogance, ‘plebs’ and politicians

Arrogance has always been a characteristic of politicians, the belief that they are right and always right.  They will brook little dissent even in democratic systems of government: ‘there is no Plan B’.  In a deferential society this may not have been a problem largely because in return for deference from most in society, the political elite had a reciprocal responsibility of ‘care’ for those lower down the social ladder.  Although this may have satisfied the middle-classes with aspirations to climb into the political elite and who, largely through pressure group politics, could exert some influence on the political elite but that was rarely the case with the urban working-classes largely divorced from the persistent deference of rural Britain.  For the working-classes, there had already been what Thomas Carlyle called ‘an abdication on the part of the governors’ as the political elite removed the paternalistic legislation that protected working people from too much exploitation as ‘gentlemanly capitalism’ replaced any sense of social responsibility.  Some sense of social responsibility may have remained, as fictionalised in Downton Abbey, for ones tenants and servants but this was already in terminal decline by the end of the First World War. 
Conflict between classes was, and remains, an important feature of British society and in the last two decades this had been evident in the growing gap (however you construe it) between rich and poor and a declining ability of individuals to rise in society, something successive governments have failed to resolve despite the dramatic increase in places and entry into higher education.  Keeping the poor in their place is still an important element of some political thinking especially on the political right.  The rhetoric of aspiration is parroted by all political parties and bursaries demonstrate that paternalism is alive and kicking but the reality in most people’s lives is very different and Britain is an increasingly divided society.  There is an elite largely divorced from the lives of ordinary people who frequently do not recognise that their actions have consequences for society as a whole but that do not impinge on their own protected ways of life.  That its actions often appear (and are) immoral or at least amoral but are not recognised as such by those involved is the clearest expression of the arrogance of power in society.  Banks, for instance, have been shown to have acted immorally and, in some cases, illegally but for many higher level bankers this appears to have been perfectly justifiable and when they are called to account before parliamentary select committees they are, to be generous, circumspect in their understanding of the truth.  Where economic prosperity and morality are in conflict it is prosperity that trumps morality every time.
Deference has decayed since the beginnings of the nineteenth century first among the working-classes and, post-1968, among the middle-classes as well and there has been a parallel growth of overt arrogance among politicians of all political colours and across all political institutions, whether local, regional, national or European.  Politicians in the first half of the nineteenth century, for instance, may have regarded much of society as plebeian but recognised that, even though ‘the plebs’ were largely unenfranchised, their aspirations and concerns needed to be taken into account and acted on to prevent the revolutions that characterised much of continental Europe and that the burgeoning middle-classes needed to be brought within the ‘hallowed’ circles of political power.  This sense of connection no longer exists and politicians are regarded as self-serving, money-grubbing parasites who have no real answers to society’s problems but are quite prepared to enrich themselves while the rest of society flounders.  Whether or not Andrew Mitchell actually used the term ‘pleb’ is less important than the perception that his actions demonstrates that the notion ‘we are all in this together’ is palpably untrue.  The idea that ‘we know best’ and an overweening sense of social hubris have never been a solid foundation on which to build effective political power and, as the Romans recognised early in their republic, the patricians in society ignore the plebs at their peril.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Reflections on E. H. Carr’s What is History?

E. H. Carr’s What is History? was first published in 1961 and remains in print today regarded, whether you agree with him or not, as a ‘classic’  of its genre.  It has, after all, sold over a quarter of a million copies since its first publication, and with good reason. I read it first when studying O Levels and later an undergraduate and on several occasions since.   Its droll and incisive prose elegantly attacked the kind of history being taught at school and university that was dominated by high politics and diplomacy, bereft of theory and entirely  unaware that it might be serving some kind of ideological or political purpose.   This was not lost on the vibrant ‘school’ of English Marxist historians, who began to publish widely in the 1960s, after most of them had left the Communist Party in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Hungary and devoted themselves to building up the intellectual foundations of the ‘New Left’.  Historians such as Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, Eric Hobsbawm, George Rudé and Edward Thompson did far more to undermine historical orthodoxy in the eyes of those of us who entered the hallowed walls of academe in 1968 than did the godly figure of Sir Lewis Namier, whose work we were supposed to admire as the ultimate in historical scholarship.  Today we remember Thompson and his ilk, while Namier whose star flamed so brilliantly and as it turned out briefly is all but forgotten and few of his works remain in print. 

Having read What is History?, I looked forward to reading his study of A History of the Soviet Union. It proved a disappointing, turgid experience.  In the end he completed fourteen massive tomes that were full of information but simply dull.  There were occasional sparks of brilliance as, for instance, in the character sketches of Bolshevik leaders at the beginning of Socialism in One Country but none of the wit, humour and vivacity of What is History?  Jonathan Haslam’s perceptive biography of Carr makes it clear that he was two different people. [1]  On the one hand, Carr was a journalist, sometime deputy editor of The Times, regular writer for the national press, broadcaster and reviewer.  What is History? was obviously written by Carr the journalist and was drafted on a sea-journey from England to San Francisco, far from any libraries or archives. Then there was Carr the bureaucrat and A History of Soviet Russia on the other hand was clearly written by the man who had been a civil servant for so long that he instinctively identified with government (of whatever political hue) and was interested almost exclusively in what went into the making of policy.  The History, despite getting the story right, reads like an extensive civil service minute devoid of drama and agency.  Yet the two books were linked by Carr’s insistence that historians should only be interested in causes of historical events because their explanation served the making of policy in the future.

Edward Hallett Carr (1892-1982)

Like many books that are written quickly and originated as lectures, What is History? is fluent in style, something often missing in more considered works and certainly in the History.  It contains numerous examples of real historians and from real history books to illustrate his argument it is proposing and in contrast to most introductions to history, it addresses its readers as equals. It is witty, amusing and entertaining even when it tackles the most intractable theoretical problems. It still retains after sixty years its power to provoke. It tackles fundamental questions not just of history but also of politics and ethics. It deals with big topics, and deals with them in a masterly fashion backed by substantial references to historians, philosophers, writers and thinkers.  Part of the seductive appeal of What is History? lies in its effortless display of learning. What is History? is important for many reasons, especially Carr’s insistence that ‘History is a process, and you cannot isolate a bit of process and study it on its own - everything is completely interconnected’ .  It is the job of historians to study whatever part of the past they chose to examine in the context both of what came before and after it, and in the context of the interconnections between their subject and its wider context. Above all, Carr reiterated that, whether we like it not, there is always a subjective element in historical writing. Historians are people of their time, with views and assumptions about the world that they cannot remove from their writing and research, even if they can hope to restrain them. It is in this respect that Carr has been most influential and his views most widely accepted by historians.  For this reason, if no other, his work will endure.

[1] Haslam, Jonathan, The Vices of Integrity: E.H. Carr 1892-1982, (Verso), 1999, pp. 192-217, for his discussion of the writing and reception of What is History?, .

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Nineteenth century social history

Those of you who follow my blogs on nineteenth century British social history might like to know that modified and more recent versions of the blogs are available as a series of Kindle books.  They have been published in two formats . As five single volumes:

  • Economy, Population and Transport
  • Work, Health and Poverty
  • Education, Crime and Leisure
  • Class
  • Religion and Government

Kindle Opening Liverpool Manchester5Kindle Volume 21Kindle Volume 31Kindle Vol 4Kindle Volume 5

Or as a single volume: Society under Pressure: Britain 1830-1914.  In addition, a supplementary volume Sex, Work and Politics: Women in Britain 1830-1918 has also been published in both print and Kindle versions.

Kindle Volume 61Women in the Nineteenth Century

All of these volumes are available at the click of a mouse from Amazon sites in the UK, Europe and North America and are now also available in India. 

Monday, 17 September 2012

Changing courses or the rubbishing of GCESs

People have been rubbishing GCSEs since they were first proposed in the 1980s: the two tier system of O Levels and CSE was better they maintained so why introduce something new, employers don’t want it and neither do parents and many schools.  Yet, at least initially, it did garner some support especially in schools where heads of department no longer had to make the invidious decision over which exam to enter students for.  By the late 1990s, however, a process of systematic rubbishing of GCSEs began and has continued with increasing ferocity until radical reform became inevitable.  You might have thought that politicians would have welcomed increasingly improving national examination performance but you would be wrong.  Comparison with O Levels suggested that GCSEs were easier and that grades had been inflated to allow incremental improvement in performance.  The buzz words became ‘lack of rigour’ and grade inflation.  As far as politicians of all parties are concerned the current system is discredited, a situation aided by the introduction of the modular approach that allows students to re-sit and improve their marks.  Yet reform will not occur until after the election in 2015 with students not taking the new examination until 2017 with four years of students continuing to take something that is now regarded as discredited! 

Until tomorrow it is unclear precisely what form the new examination will take.  What we do know is that there will be no return to the two tier system and there will be an emphasis on a singly end-of-year exam.  Mr Clegg had suggested that reform will do three simple things:

Firstly give parents confidence in the exams their children are taking, secondly raise standards for all our children in schools in the country but thirdly and crucially not exclude any children from the new exam system.

Finally, its introduction is not going to be rushed: a good thing given the disastrous experience of the last government in introducing reforms at Advanced Level.  These are all positive things though there may be difficulties in applying end-of-year examinations effectively to all subjects.  The production of a portfolio in Art, for instance, could well be retained as part of the assessment even if coursework disappears in other subjects.  There is also still the unresolved issue of the equivalence of vocational courses that provide motivation for students for whom academic courses have little resonance.

The critical issue is whether reform will improve ‘standards’.  The difficulty is that standards are rarely defined precisely and have acquired a rhetorical character than far exceeds their actual nature.  To reiterate a point I’ve made on several occasions about the crucial C/D divide: the standard for achieving a grade C, though not absolute, should be a defined standard that remains unchanged for say a five year period.  If 55 per cent is the pass mark for grade C one year, there is no logical reason (though their may be a statistical one if you want to limit the numbers achieving it) why the same mark should not apply the following year.  It would then be known and consistent over that five year period.  Politicians could then say with confidence, standards have improved or not; parents and employers could have confidence in the system and students (remember them, the ones seemingly forgotten in all the rhetoric) would know where they stood.  Reform may be necessary but if badly handled we’ll just be back into the old and seemingly perennial behaviour of the last half century of rubbishing the examination system.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Rebellion in Canada, 1837-1885, Volume 2: The Irish, the Fenians and the Metis


In less than fifty years Canada experienced six major rebellions: in Lower and Upper Canada in late 1837 and 1838, the Fenian rebellions of 1866 and 1870 and the Pembina affair in 1871 and Louis Riel's resistance at Red River in 1869-1870 and his rebellion fifteen years later in Saskatchewan. Each failed to achieve its aims and, in one sense, the two books in the Canadian Rebellion series are studies of political disappointment. The second volume, The Irish, the Fenians and the Metis, considers the impact of the Irish diaspora on the United States and Canada and the rebellions led largely by Irish-American Fenians in the 1860s and 1870s and also the rebellions, led by Louis Riel in 1869-1870 and 1885, by the Metis.


Chapter 1 examines the Irish diaspora to North America during the nineteenth century and focuses especially on the impact of the Famine in the 1840s and 1850s. Chapter 2 considers at the ways in which Irish nationalism maintained a strong political presence in the United States and Canada from the beginning of the nineteenth century and the emergence of the Fenian Brotherhood in New York in 1858. The political impact of this movement was both enhanced and restricted by the American Civil War between 1861 and 1865 yet the Fenians emerged in April 1865 as a powerful, if increasingly divided, force with concrete plans for the liberation of Ireland. Chapter 3 explores in detail at the three Irish-American Fenian incursions into Canada in 1866, 1870 and briefly and debatably in 1871, the impact that they had on Canadian and American politics and how this led to changes in Irish nationalism in the 1870s. Chapters 4 and 5 extend the story geographically beyond Quebec and Ontario across the continent to the unchartered and largely unsettled prairies of the North-West. The importance of rebellion in state-building in Canada is considered in the final chapter.


Series Preface

1 Famine and Diaspora

2 Irish Nationalism in North America to 1865

3 Rebellions in Canada, 1866, 1870 and 1871

4 Riel and Resistance, 1869-1870

5 Riel and Rebellion, 1885

6 A Contested Consensus

Appendix: Who ran colonial government?

Further Reading



Comprehensive narrative and analysis of the context causes, course and results of the rebellions including analysis of constitutional, political, social, economic and cultural influences

Discusses the effects of the Irish Famine and the resulting emigration to the United States and Canada

Examines the influence of nationalism on political developments in the United States and Canada

Considers the role played by individuals such as John Mahony, Louis Riel and John A. Macdonald on the development of competing political agendas

Examines the rebellions in their historiographical context

Macquarie: opposition and reform

Macquarie’s support of emancipists resulted in sustained opposition almost from the beginning of his governorship. Early in 1810 the senior chaplain, Samuel Marsden[1], refused outright to serve with the emancipist justices, Simeon Lord[2] and Andrew Thompson on the turnpike board for the new Parramatta Road. In 1811, Macquarie flatteringly named a street in Parramatta after Marsden, but despite Wilberforce’s attempts to mediate there was further controversy between them in 1814, and finally in January 1818 Marsden was summoned to Government House and denounced as a ‘secret enemy’. Since the chaplain probably had more influential friends in England than any other colonist he proved a dangerous antagonist. Jeffery Hart Bent, judge of the Supreme Court created under the new Charter of Justice granted in 1814 also proved a vehement opponent.[3] He kept his court closed rather than admit ex-convict attorneys to practise even though there was only one free lawyer in the colony. The governor’s growing rift with both Bent brothers led to their recall. Ellis Bent died before this decision arrived, but his brother returned to England and assisted H.G. Bennet in mounting the campaign against Macquarie in the House of Commons that led to the appointment of a select committee on gaols and of John Thomas Bigge as commissioner to enquire into the affairs of the colony.

Macquarie’s emancipist policy also led to his falling out with his old friend of Indian days, Colonel George Molle[4], who arrived with the 46th Regiment early in 1814 as lieutenant-governor. Soon after their arrival Molle and his officers complained of high prices and asked for higher pay. They disliked the favour shown by Macquarie to the emancipists, whom they excluded from the regimental mess, even in cases when the governor looked on them with favour. In 1816, William Charles Wentworth insulted Molle in a ‘pipe’ or lampoon. Next year, during the investigation of its authorship, some of the officers of the regiment insulted Macquarie in his turn, and he felt that his ‘old and Much liked Acquaintance’ Molle, on whose ‘Friendship and Candour’ he had relied, had not seriously tried to check the opposition of his juniors to the governor. Molle insisted that D’Arcy Wentworth, William’s father, was responsible for his son’s libels and demanded that he be court-martialled. To end all this bickering, Macquarie asked that the regiment be removed. Fortunately in August 1817 the 48th arrived to relieve it and Molle left for Madras the following month.

In 1817, concern was expressed by Lord Bathurst, Secretary of State for the Colonies, that Governor Macquarie’s humane and liberal policies were undermining the effectiveness of the transportation system as a means of criminal punishment. As a result, John Thomas Bigge was appointed to inquire into the overall effectiveness of the system, with sweeping inquisitional powers. It was clear that Macquarie as much as the transportation system was under scrutiny. From his arrival in the colony in 1819, Bigge’s relations with Macquarie were strained. Bigge felt that Macquarie’s public works policy was ‘absurd’ and they disagreed on Macquarie’s appointment on 1819 of William Redfern[5], an emancipist, as a magistrate. Bigge could not see the advantages in either the aims or achievements of Macquarie’s emancipist policy. The basic difference between Bigge and Macquarie was that they saw NSW in different ways. Macquarie viewed it as ‘a Penitentiary or Asylum on a Grand Scale’ though he believed that one day it must be one of the greatest and most flourishing Colonies belonging to the British Empire’. By contrast, Bigge was influenced by people such as John Macarthur who saw its potential as a free settlement and wool growing area. Tension turned to antipathy and Bigge found himself more in sympathy with the exclusives of the squattocracy than with the Governor. Bigge was assiduous in assembling evidence in NSW and VDL, but he was far from judicial and impartial in the conclusions he drew. His analysis was unfairly prejudicial of an administration superior to any previously known in the colony that enjoyed widespread popular support among the inhabitants. By that time Macquarie had resigned.

Bigge’s reports were important for the future constitutional and political development of Australia. He emphasised that the population of the colony had grown enormously and now included many free settlers. His three reports, published in 1822 and 1823, questioned the autocratic style of government that had existed since Governor Phillip’s administration. [6] Collectively they prompted the insertion in the New South Wales Act (4 Geo. IV, c. 96) of clauses to set up limited constitutional government through a Legislative Council, to establish VDL as a separate colony, to enable extensive legal reforms and to make new provisions for the reception of convicts from England. Bigge’s first report, The State of the Colony of New South Wales, focused on four principal themes: general colonial conditions, the convict system, relations between social classes and Macquarie’s programme of public works. Much was made of the alleged mismanagement of convicts but Bigge was unconcerned that the convict system was working better than ever before in the colony, that Macquarie’s methods had produced and maintained ‘peace if not harmony’ and that he had ended most brutality and violence. Bigge also criticised Macquarie’s emancipist policy and disapproved of the standing emancipists were allowed in society. He thought the governor’s building programme was wastefully expensive and used his authority to discontinue some projects and to make changes in the construction and intended use of other buildings. Macquarie’s opinion that the report ‘gave no knowledge of the present state of the colony’ was justified by the commissioner’s lack of balance. Bigge failed adequately to explain the colony’s history or contrast the orderly society that he found to the virtual anarchy existing just before Macquarie took office. While Bigge properly exposed inefficiency in district constables, theft of government medical stores, flaws in the ticket-of-leave system for convicts, inadequacies of country education, poor accommodation for female convicts, faulty regulation of liquor traffic and a multitude of similar defects, he failed to account for the very real achievements of government.

If the first report was candid, the second report, The Judicial Establishments of New South Wales and of Van Diemen’s Land, was evasive and indirect. Its analysis of the colonial legal establishments was superficial and he reserved his most valuable conclusions for private dispatch to Bathurst. Bigge’s supplementary instructions allowed him to report privately on matters of this kind but, having elected to do so, he allowed the public report to become a vehicle of insidious attack on Governor Macquarie. In his public report, he relied on statements by Mr Justice Barron Field[7] and Judge-Advocate (Sir) John Wylde[8] disparaging Macquarie but privately admitted that he placed little confidence in either of these officers. Bigge’s lengthy treatment of the old libel case Marsden v. Campbell was calculated to discredit Macquarie since John Campbell had been the governor’s secretary from 1810 to 1821.[9] Most of the recommendations in the report affecting the civil jurisdiction originated from Field and, while Bigge deserved some credit for suggesting reforms in criminal jurisdiction, his part in framing the reconstitution of the courts in 1824 was comparatively small. He simply supported submissions of the colonial lawyers, and especially the earlier recommendations of Judge-Advocate Ellis Bent.[10] Bigge opposed popular demands for legal redress, refused to approve the introduction of jury trial or the modification of the military tribunals that composed the criminal courts. Bigge was the first lawyer of any distinction in the colony yet made surprisingly little personal contribution to founding a sound legal system. His concern was to draw attention to Macquarie’s abuses of his limited legislative and prerogative powers and to condemn the governor’s ‘insensibility to the controlling power of the law’. Like so much of his analyses, it was correct in terms of the letter of the statute book, but was unrealistically applied to a colony where the rule of law was still in an embryonic form.

The third report, The State of Agriculture and Trade in the Colony of New South Wales, was the most impartial and least contentious. It afforded a generally clear picture of farming and grazing in the Sydney district and west of the Blue Mountains. It did not sufficiently acknowledge the important developments of the Illawarra district and tended to suggest incorrectly that agriculture had stagnated under Macquarie. Otherwise it was well presented and included useful accounts of the state of revenue, trade and the country’s economic position.

Macquarie was the first to see beyond the limits of the convict settlement or the opportunities for self-enrichment that had characterised the early colony. His vision, by 1821, was shown in a public building and town-planning programme that had established a solid infrastructure for the colony. Exploration had reached deep into the inland and settlement and agriculture were following, north and south along the coastline and inland beyond Bathurst. Agriculture was, in fact, creating the conditions for the colony to become almost economically self-sufficient. The non-Aboriginal population of the colony including VDL was approximately 37,000, of whom at least 8,000 were free settlers or had been born in the colony. However, frustration and recurring bouts of illness led him to submit his resignation on several occasions. A serious illness in 1819 almost proved fatal, and the pressures of Bigge’s commission of inquiry into the state of the colony reinforced his desire to end his term of office and return home to defend the charges made against his administration. Finally at the end of 1820, he learned that his third application for resignation had been accepted though it was not until 12 February 1822 that he and his wife and son departed for England. Macquarie had converted NSW from a rebellion-torn penitentiary to a settlement of substance. His broad sense of justice and humanity was radical by Georgian standards and was expressed in his willingness to readmit emancipated convicts to society without regard for their past.

By 1822, a colony created by transportation had begun to evolve away from its penal origins. Although free settlers had begun to arrive in the colony in the early 1790s, it was not until after 1815 that in both NSW and VDL, there was sustained growth and new land was brought into cultivation.[11] Constitutionally, NSW was founded as an autocracy run by the Governor, although the early governors effectively ruled by consent, with the advice of military officers, officials and leading settlers and exercised their powers within the restraints of British law. By the early 1820s, it was widely believed that the deterrent effect of transportation had declined and there had been a blurring between the respective positions of emancipists and free settlers. Bigge’s reports sought to restore transportation as ‘an object of real terror’ by calling for greater severity in the treatment of convicts, an end to free grants of land at the end of their sentences and a continuance of their subordinate status by not admitting them to positions of social responsibility. For Bigge, the future of the colony lay with the free settlers who would possess the land, employ the convicts and produce wool. Free immigration was no longer incidental to the purposes of settlement and this meant that the autocratic system needed to be modified and a system of government more suitable for free subjects of the Crown introduced. This, for Bigge, meant a legislature to curb the autocratic tendencies of governors and a judicial system that safeguarded the rule of law. This restraint on rule by decree exacerbated the existing tensions between exclusives and emancipists and opened up a three-way contest for power between successive governors and these two groups that dominated colonial politics until the 1850s.

[1] Yarwood, A.T., ‘Marsden, Samuel (1765-1838)’, ADB, Vol. 2, pp. 207-212.

[2] Hainsworth, D.R., ‘Lord, Simeon (1771-1840)’, ADB, Vol. 2, pp. 128-131.

[3] On conflict between Macquarie and the Bent brothers, see

[4] Macmillan, David S., ‘Molle, George James (1773-1823)’, ADB, Vol. 2, p. 243.

[5] Ford, Edward, ‘Redfern, William (1774-1833)’, ADB, Vol. 2, pp. 368-371.

[6] Bigge’s Reports were printed in three volumes. Vol. 1: The State of the Colony of New South Wales, The House of Lords, (Papers 119), printed, 5 August 1822, facs ed., Adelaide, 1966; Vol. 2: The State of Agriculture and Trade in the Colony of New South Wales, The House of Lords, (Paper 119), printed, 4 July, 1823, facs ed., Adelaide, 1971; and, Vol. 3: The Judicial Establishments of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Lands, The House of Lords, (Paper 118), printed, 4 July 1823, facs ed., Adelaide, 1966. See also Ritchie, J., (ed.), The Evidence to the Bigge Reports: New South Wales under Governor Macquarie, 2 Vols. Melbourne, 1971 and Bennett, J.M., ‘Bigge, John Thomas (1780-1843)’, ADB, Vol. 1, pp. 99-100.

[7] Currey, C.H., ‘Field, Barron (1786-1846)’, ADB, Vol. 1, pp. 373-376.

[8] Mckay, R.J., ‘Wylde, Sir John (1781-1859)’, ADB, Vol. 2, pp. 627-628.

[9] Holder, R.F., ‘Campbell, John Thomas (1770?-1830)’, ADB, Vol. 1, pp. 199-201. The ‘Philo Free’ letter, was published on 4 January 1817 in the Sydney Gazette, of which Campbell was official censor. This elaborately sarcastic review of the missionary activities of the ‘Christian Mahomet’ of the South Seas was obviously directed at Samuel Marsden who instituted a criminal charge against Campbell. He was found guilty of allowing the libel to appear, but no sentence was passed. Marsden then brought successful civil action and obtained £200 damages. Campbell, in his official apology sent to the Colonial Office by the governor, said that the ‘hasty and inconsiderate Letter’ was inspired by his indignation at Marsden’s ‘marked disrespect’ to the governor’s orders in not attending the meeting of Aboriginals at Parramatta a few days before. Undoubtedly this indignation had been growing for some time over the clergyman’s open defiance of and devious attacks on the governor’s authority and policy.

[10] See Judge-Advocate Bent to Under-Secretary Cooke, 7 May 1810 and Judge-Advocate Bent to Earl Liverpool, 19 October 1811, HRNSW, Vol. 7, pp. 310-377, 621-630.

[11] In 1809, there were an estimated 300 free settlers in NSW and VDL though this figure does not include children. By 1820, there were 1,307 free immigrants.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Shuffling the pack or how not to change your ministers

Ministerial reshuffles are always a mixed bag.  Sometimes it’s a case of rearranging the chairs on the Titanic while occasionally reshuffles represent the beginning of a new direction in policy.  Yesterday’s reshuffle was neither of these.  Although the government is, not surprisingly mid-term, languishing in the polls, it has yet the achieve the Titanic status of the last Labour government.  Despite the many comments that this was a re-launch of the government, it resembles the beginning of part 2 of a drama (or tragedy depending on your viewpoint).  Part 1 was reform, part 2 presentation and delivery so there remains a continuity of policy but no new direction (well in most areas).  The only problem with this approach is that if the policies are wrong, presenting them in a more dynamic way to the public makes little difference.

There are, however, several things that were significant about the changes in ministerial briefs.  First, they demonstrate a weakness at the heart of government.  The top posts have not changed at all: Osborne remains Chancellor, Hague at the Foreign Office and May at the Home Office and Duncan-Smith would not accept a move to the Ministry of Justice.  No ‘night of the long knives’ here.  Secondly, where there were changes at the higher level of government, the moves were concerned with moving the reform agenda on to its delivery stage.  With Hunt replacing Lansley at Health you have a presenter replacing a thinker even if his thoughts on health do not have significant support among professionals or public.  At Transport, it appears that Justine Greening has been moved for stating government policy on the third runway at Heathrow and replaced by  an established politician whose constituency will not be compromised if (or more likely when) the government alters its policy.  Finally, there has been promotion for some of the 2010 intake that represents a shift to an even more free-trade, market oriented, small state approach to policy.

The critical question is whether this really matters to people outside the Westminster bubble.  Most of those promoted, even to relatively senior positions, are largely unknown outside Parliament.  Will replacing Baroness Warsi with Grant Shapps or the lamentable decision to bring back David Lawes after his period in purdah actually make any difference to the general public?  Well, no.  It is clear that policies are not going to change and that the government intended to deliver (or not) them in the next thirty months.  At one level this is a commendable position to take, develop your policy and then implement it.  However, there is always a danger of not having (or at least not publicising) a Plan B since policies can be thrown off-course is things beyond government’s control.  There is always a joker in the pack!

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Examinations, justice and persistent change

GCSE examinations should be ‘thoroughly overhauled’ Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, said on the Andrew Marr Show this morning.  Few would disagree with him especially those students whose futures may have been blighted by the failure of the system in English this summer.  Never in all my years’ teaching have I witnessed such an obvious case of injustice in examinations.  It’s nothing to do with rigour or the weasel words of the head of Ofqual that those in January were just lucky to have the grade boundary between C and D ten points lower than in the summer.  Yes students do get grade D when they are predicted, perhaps too optimistically, a grade C, often a crude belief in hope over expectation but what has occurred is, by any definition of the term, unjust. 
I must admit I have never fully understood why grade boundaries have to change year on year (and it should be year on year) unless you are statistically seeking to limit the number of people who get particular grades.  If it is right that a student who scores 55 per cent gets a grade C one year, then I can see no reason why a student who gets 55 per cent the following year should not also get a grade C.  Although it’s been my experience in an option subject that some years are ‘better’ than others, over say a five year period the relative ability of students levelled out.  The only way you can really judge whether one cohort of students has done better or worse than the previous cohort is for the grade boundaries that do not change each year.  There is no reason why after grade boundaries set at one level should not be pushed up after a period of time as a means of encouraging progress but this should be known in advance so that teachers can prepare their students and students know what they have to achieve to achieve the omnipresent grade C. In that way you would have identifiable and known standards at GCSE.
A pupil sitting a GCSE exam This begs the question of whether we now need GCSE at all and, if we do, where it fits in the evaluation of student progress.  With the increase of the education leaving age at 18, there is a case for examinations at 18+, whether A Levels, vocational qualifications or achievement in apprenticeships as the medium through which schools are judged not GCSEs.  There is also a case for examination of students in all subjects at 11, 14, 16 and 18 but only if the aim of those evaluations is to be able to demonstrate how individual students have progressed.  I would much rather see a school judged, not by the percentage of students who get five A*-C including Maths and English, by the percentage of those students who have shown progress over their performance in the previous evaluation. 
Sir Michael may be right when he says that ‘Our youngsters, when they leave school, will be going into a global marketplace, they [just how many is unclear]have to compete not just against competitors here but the rest of the world’ but they won’t do so if the curriculum and examinations keep changing.  Neither will the persistent rhetoric from politicians that they intend to reverse ‘dumbing down’ that they initiated in the first place.  Mr Cameron said in the Mail on Sunday that there would be ‘no more excuses for failure in schools, no more soft exams and soft discipline’.  Careful for what you wish for David, the apple never falls far from the tree!  It little behoves politicians with their rhetoric of success and the reality of failure to lecture the public on what they will or not accept.