Saturday, January 21, 2012

Supply in short supply

Teaching is one of those jobs where, "just be yourself", has to be about the worst possible advice you could give someone. As anyone with any experience will tell you, teaching is a performance. It's only right and proper that it should be so. If you went around saying what you really thought, the average school switchboard would be jammed with phone calls from justifiably indignant parents.

But the role-playing can become a little wearisome at times so those rare moments when you get to say what you think is true to someone who matters are a liberating experience. One such moment for me was when I was selected along with a few other colleagues to give our thoughts to Professor McCrone (pbuh) and his team who were doing a little fact-finding before making their recommendations on teachers' pay and conditions. We were all there to represent staff in different stages and positions - with myself as someone new to the school, having recently gained a contract after being on the supply circuit.

We were asked other than money, what did we think would improve our working arrangements. It was at that point I got to suggest that something might be done about the dismal experience of teachers on temporary short time supply. Often you get treated like shit, frankly. I actually used that form of words. Dunno how Prof McCrone felt about it but for me it was an uplifting moment.

Because I can tell you from experience that temporary supply teachers have a hard shift. It's an insecure job in which often sporadic work oscillates between enormous stress and pulverizing tedium. You might find yourself taking classes not necessarily in your own subject, frequently with no or insufficient work for them to do. And it's not unusual to find that you're dealing with this in an environment where some staff are a wee bit less helpful than they could be, to say no more than that.

Still, at least you get paid the same as everyone else. Or at least you did, until recently. The shabby deal agreed to by the EiS means that some supply teachers have taken a 47% nominal cut in their wages. I haven't worked it out in any detail but this plus the wages freeze must mean a drop in real disposable income of something approaching 60%. I can't believe some people are still prepared to justify this. The rationale was that staff in this position don't have the burden of marking and preparation. True but this has to be the sole advantage of a job that has rather more disadvantages. And in any event, I don't think marking and preparation constitutes 47% of the job. It certainly isn't supposed to.

In any event, it's an academic discussion because the market has now delivered its verdict: temporary teachers simply aren't willing to sell their labour at this price and now there's a staffing crisis. That this should be so during the worst economic recession since the interwar period should be enough to demonstrate to Mike Russell that 'monitoring the situation' isn't going to be good enough. As for Labour and the EiS, my erstwhile colleague Hugh Reilly nails their recent hypocrisy on this issue with some panache here. This was a tawdry deal where the interests of the most vulnerable of our profession were sold out. Everyone involved in the negotiations should be ashamed of themselves but on a more practical level they should be conceding that it isn't the first time that an unjust policy turns out to be economically-inefficient too.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Some notes on 'canny' Salmond

Canny is a word often used to describe Salmond by journalists who seek to impress on an audience who have hitherto not paid too much attention to our First Minister or the the political threat he represents. The description is not entirely without foundation. Salmond is an impressive political operator who has consistently wrong-footed his opponents on the political scene in Scotland. One of his advantages is that he has simply been at it longer than the leaders of any political party in the UK. To borrow a Bushism he has been 'misunderestimated' and it has now become customary for hacks to declare that they would decline to bet against Salmond, who is now seen as the consummate political gambler.

But his talents have also been greatly exaggerated. This is partly big fish, small pond syndrome: Scotland is a small country which is bound to have a narrower pool of talent than the UK as a whole - and it is made smaller still by the fact that the ambitious in the unionist parties have historically sought to build their careers in Westminster. It is also partly on account of hagiography within the nationalist movement. If anyone troubles themselves to become acquainted with their history, they have moved from being an eccentric minority to commanding a majority in a legislature which adopted a voting system that was supposed to prevent such an event from happening. For the believers, Salmond is the political colossus who made all of this possible.

It might be worth reminding people - or informing for the first time in some cases - about the other side of Salmond, the political leader who also has an impressive record of calling it wrong, and doing so on some of the most significant political and economic issues of our time.

For example, he described the Kosovo campaign "an act of dubious legality, but above all one of unpardonable folly." The intention of reminding people of this is not to invite debate on the merits of the NATO intervention. I was in favour, I remain of the view that it was the right thing to do - and I have an emotional interest in the case, having taught students who had come to seek shelter in Scotland from Milosevic's army. But I appreciate that good people opposed this intervention in good faith. Rather it is that Salmond's predictions of the outcome that were completely wrong, as was his belief that he would gain political capital from this at the ballot box. And his comparison to the bombing of Clydebank by the Luftwaffe was too absurd to dignify with an argument.

Then there was the whole 'arc of prosperity' thing that Scotland was invited to join. As this doesn't distinguish him from the UK political mainstream, I would be disinclined to make too much of Salmond calling the Euro wrong - were it not for two factors. One was that he is an economist and should therefore have been more alert to the possibility of failure than most. The other is that his attitude to this is frustratingly like that of the Tories to education in that both seem to pick exemplar countries that have absolutely nothing in common except one bare point that politicians wish to identify themselves with. So we get Tories citing Sweden and China (!) as models of educational excellence to follow - and nationalists offering Ireland, Iceland and Norway as case-studies in successful small-country nationalism, happily ignoring the fact that membership of the Euro is central to the argument one day but not the next. And not today, for obvious reasons.

What do that Nationalists envisage for us now with the present Euro-troubles? Membership of a currency with putative fiscal rules that would give rightwing Republicans in the US wet-dreams, or do they want the 'government by fax', which we are led to believe is the fate of Norway, a country outside the EU but which has to conform to its practices anyway? Questions that will be asked and will be more difficult to answer than the foot-soldiers of nationalism have led us to believe.

Finally, there is the Salmond tendency to pick on firms in the way he seems to choose countries. Forget the details, they are examples that can bolster the nationalist case. A significant howler in this regard is the attitude of this former economist with the Royal Bank of Scotland to his erstwhile employers. "Good luck with the bid", he wrote to the now disgraced Sir Fred Goodwin in relation to his intention to acquire the Dutch banking enterprise ABN.

Despite all this, Salmond is seen as some kind of invulnerable political demi-god. Might it not be the case that at least some of this could be attributed to the palsied state of the political opposition in Scotland and also to a media that simply isn't doing its job properly? If Salmond is some kind of hero of mythic proportions, the one I'd chose is Achilles. There's always the hope that someone with a straight bow will hit the target, which is why - while gambling is the one of the few vices I don't understand - I won't be placing a bet on Alex Salmond in the next couple of years.

Monday, January 09, 2012

On the prospect of a referendum on Scottish independence: initial thoughts

The first is that nothing has happened so far in the debate provoked by Cameron's high-risk, and previously occluded, plan to play Call My Bluff with the Nationalists in Scotland to disabuse me of my view of referendums. I would suggest that the reason the arguments over the timing and the form of question are already overheated is because the actors involved understand perfectly well that plebiscites are exercises in manufacturing consent for projects that have already been chosen by political elites.

The second is that I'm in a minority in arguing that there is a certain logic to the position of the Westminster government. The situation as it stood was allowing the agenda to be set by Salmond & Co alone. "We the Scots" should decide the timing and question of a referendum, say the Nats. By "we" they mean of course the SNP who claim exclusive rights to determine when we should be asked, and what form of question - and why shouldn't they extend the franchise if it is deemed useful to their purposes? Disagree and you're lining up against Scotland.

However, my opinion of the Westminster attempt to seize the initiative doesn't differ much from what numerous other commentators have been saying. For one, it's too late. The unionist parties have resisted a referendum for too long to now say with any conviction that not only do we favour it but we're now in more of a hurry than you.

Nor do the arguments for the urgency make much sense. It'll be 'legally-binding' if it's held within 18 months but merely 'advisory' after that? I wouldn't know but I doubt it makes legal sense - and I'm absolutely certain it makes no political sense.

I doubt whether it makes much economic sense either, this idea that uncertainty is crippling confidence and deterring investment. I wouldn't want to say too much about that because while the arguments both for and against independence are often couched in economic terms, the reality is the position on both sides of the argument are akin to the attitude of creationist believers to science.

And even if any of these argument did make sense, the intervention already looks unhelpful in the extreme. You can have your referendum but on our time-scale and only in a form of our choosing: so said the European Commission to the British government, arguing that continued uncertainty over British commitment to the EU was damaging economic confidence in the UK and the wider region. You wouldn't want to push the analogy too far since Britain is not a member of the EU in the way Scotland is a member of the United Kingdom - but it helps, nevertheless, to catch a flavour of how such intervention might be interpreted north of the border.

Finally, Cameron et al need to get better advice on Scottish matters. I've thought, and not for the first time, that they could do worse than pay some heed to Alex Massie:
"Of course, were I David Cameron I'd accept that Salmond, bugger it, has the ball and the right to set the conditions for the game. This may be inconvenient or sub-optimal but there it is. And then I would ask just this: do you really wish to make foreigners of your English friends and relatives? I would trust the people to make their own minds up and I would do little to get in the way of that."
Although whether referendums have much to do with trusting the people is an idea of which I'm highly sceptical.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

The Stakhanovite Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Ruth Davidson, the newly-elected leader of the Scottish Tories, is seeking to revive the fortunes of the party by arguing that we don't understand the importance of hard work and this is because of 'socialism':
"We are a resourceful people, responsible for many of the world’s greatest inventions. Our ingenuity and endurance has built business empires and spread commerce across the globe.

Decades of socialism have dampened our natural capacity for enterprise and hard work, but the flame still burns.

We can rise again if we learn from recent events and decide that we are determined to make Scotland work."
Well, good luck selling that one on the doorsteps. We'll ignore her conflation of socialism with a large state as well as her ignorance of who has been running the country for most of the time since 1945 to ask the question: what evidence is there that a large state is damaging to the work ethic?

It interested me because my honours dissertation was on the subject of Max Weber's Protestant Ethic thesis, applied to 19th Century Scotland. One of Weber's central arguments is that the work ethic - the notion that hard work per se is a virtue - was seen as irrational in terms of individual utility to early modern man and that capitalism benefited from the the peculiarly protestant inner-worldly asceticism that saw hard work as something that certificated salvation.

I'm not even going to attempt to rehearse the arguments here - except to say that there is, I think, something in this notion that there is a disutility to hard-work, which therefore requires some kind of ideological support.

You might disagree with this in the 19th century context but I'm interested in this idea as applied to the people coming to Britain from the former communist states of Eastern Europe. I don't want to indulge in stereotypes but can we at least agree that there is possibly good empirical reasons behind the reputation that, for example, Polish emigrants have for being at least as hard-working as indigenous workers?

In other words, coming from countries where the state has been as large as anywhere in human history does not appear to have damaged either the work ethic nor the entrepreneurial spirit of east Europeans. I'm wondering if perhaps there isn't something like a Protestant ethic going on - the ghost of dead secular, rather than religious, beliefs prowling around in people's lives? Because, one should stress, the notion that hard-work is virtuous isn't as obvious as one might think, if you look at it with a utilitarian eye.

This got me to wondering: perhaps it is capitalism itself that is damaging to the work-ethic? There is no certificates of salvation to produce, no sense of Stakhanovite heroism to be had, but a rather more limited notion that with hard-work one can succeed and enjoy the fruits of one's labour in a meritocratic society. The disadvantage with this is that it is a more easily, and more immediately, falsifiable notion than either the protestant or communist ideas of work as an ascetic tool used in the pursuit of salvation. Here I think Eric Hobsbawm was on to something where he argued that capitalism during the long boom from 1945 to the seventies benefited from the fact that people hadn't yet followed the idea of utilitarian individualism to its logical conclusions. Because to the rational utility-maximizing individual, hard work seems more positively irrational than the unthinking supporters of the capitalist system would have us believe.

Schools and alarm bells

I don't mean fire alarms. I'm referring to the sense you get when you go into a school and there's certain indications that the establishment you've walked into might prove to be a little 'challenging'.

They are too numerous to list but one stood out to me and it was when I was given a school handbook and one of the first things I was directed to was where the panic button on the classroom telephone was.

Anyway, on a completely unrelated matter, here's a report about how many of the findings of the Commission on School Reform were rejected by Education Secretary Mike Russell.

He was right to do so, although I should stress that my reasons for wholeheartedly agreeing with Mr Russell are unrelated to the anecdote above. That I just felt like sharing.

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