Wednesday 23 February 2011

The return of the 'Tory teacher'

Some of you might remember the name Katharine Birbalsingh. She gave a speech at last year’s Tory Party conference in Birmingham, exposing the failings of Britain’s state schools.

Instantly she became a darling of the Tory Party. Here was a black, female, London schoolteacher claiming the left wing liberal bias in Britain’s schools, had contributed to a dumbing down in standards. To senior Tories it must have seemed that they’d won the lottery!

Birbalsingh’s been back in the news this week. I’ve read two interviews with her in the Guardian and The Sunday Times as she’s got a book coming out providing a warts and all fictional account of life in an inner-city school.

She’s had plenty of time to write the book. After giving her speech she soon found herself out of a job and has struggled to find another teaching position.

The ‘Tory teacher’ label seems to have stuck, but after reading some of her thoughts and accounts of teaching in state schools, I think she's been harshly treated.

In the interview I read in the Times, Birbalsingh’s claims she doesn’t regret the speech on a moral level, but admits it was a mistake on a personal level.

She argues she wants to expose the truth about our state schools. How a
left leaning liberal bias amongst the teaching profession has hindered standards and contributed to some of the chaotic and violent incidents you can find in some of the country’s toughest schools.

I’ve been interested in the backlash she’s experienced. State schooling isn’t perfect in Britain, but I think she's raised some important issues and questions.

The fact that she said this at the Tory Party Conference and was a previous Labour voter, she seems to have been blacklisted from the profession. It's as if she’s not allowed to say such things.

I know the stereotype says all teachers are ‘lefties’ but there must be some Conservative voters within the profession? I have some sympathy for Birbalsingh it's almost as if she's being punished for speaking out and not conforming to the typical image and views that teachers are meant to have.

I’m not a Conservative voter, but I agree with some of the things she says. She argues that despite exams results improving under Labour - standards did not. I agree with this.

Children aren’t told how well they’re doing in comparison to their classmates in case it undermines their confidence and self esteem. Stories like that just make me groan!

In the Guardian interview, Birbalsingh spoke about the introduction of school league tables and how they’d put more pressure on schools to achieve good exam results. It’s resulted in many schools encouraging pupils to study so called ‘soft’ subjects at GSCE in order to keep exam results high and improve a school’s league table ranking. Having a higher ranking will hopefully attract the sort of pupils that will impove a school’s performance.

For me, this isn’t radical news. My cousin is a secondary school teacher at a North London Academy. He’s taught in London schools for the last 10 years, and has told me exactly the same thing.

It’s a long time since I left school; almost 20 years and I admit I’m probably out of touch with what’s going on, but some of the points Birbalsingh’s been making are views held by many people in the country, but because of who she is and where she expressed these views, they've been politized to such an extent she can no longer find a job teaching. I think that's unfair

Although it hasn’t been great for a career, Birbalsingh’s at least stirred things up a bit and there’s nothing wrong in at least challenging some of the more dominant thinking within the teaching profession that currently exist.

Sunday 20 February 2011

What I've been listening to this week

Adele - Rolling In the Deep

I bought the new album 21 by Adele a few weeks ago. I've been listening to it a lot on my HTC phone, now that I've moved on from my Ipod.

The song above Rolling In the Deep is one of my favourite tracks on the album.

Hercules and Love Affair - Hercules Theme live

If you like a mix of classic New York disco and old skool house music you should check out Hercules and Love Affair.

I downloaded this title track from their first album in 2008, but for some reason never got round to buying it.

Then a few weeks ago I was listening to an interview with the band's leader Andrew Butler on Giles Peterson's radio 1 show. They've got a new album out, but they played some of their earlier stuff on the show which made me think I should check them out again.

I've never heard this track performed live, but I love the New York backdrop.

Kenny Dope - Deep Funk Mix

I'm loving this soul and funk mix from the legendary DJ/Producer, Kenny Dope Gonzales

Kenny Dope Live @ Bumpshop, APT, New York - 01-10-2009 by Kenny Dope

60s and 70s soul and funk at its best!

Saturday 19 February 2011

The Huffington Post: What plans does AOL have?

One of my favourite blogs/news websites has been in the news a lot in recent weeks.

You might have heard of the Huffington Post, which was sold to the American internet company AOL for $315 million (£195 million).

This story’s been huge in the media and business pages, particularly in terms of what it means for the future of online journalism and how news websites can make money and attract more investment.

As a journalism student and a blogger it might not surprise you to learn I have some interest in the subject.

The Huffington Post has been a bit of an inspiration to me. It started off as a series of blogs that still make up the majority of the site’s content, but it also aggregates content from other news sites.

I liked its varied mix of topics, something I've tried to do with my own blog.

HuffPo as it’s known by some of its fans was set up by the Greek born, American businesswomen and socialite Arianna Huffington in 2005. Since then it’s become an internet phenomenon.

It attracts 25 million visitors each month, with featured blogs written for free by different writers, including celebrities, politicians and other high profile figures.

The brand image of the Post is its liberal/left leaning slant (think of an online US version of the Guardian) Many of the site’s contributors are happy to write blogs and articles without pay as they believe in the values and liberal politics the website represents.

The more conservative AOL has taken over the Post to try and take advantage of those 25 million monthly visitors, which will attract more advertisers and increase ad revenues.

This got me thinking: Are writers going to continue providing free content for HuffPo whilst AOL look to increase profits on the back of their labour and will AOL continue with HuffPo's liberal stance.

As a blogger I’d love to get published by the Huffington Post. Partly because of its image, but obviously because of the potential for millions of people to see your work. I'm sure many of HuffPo's 9000 registered bloggers who contribute feel the same, but how long will their enthusiasm last?

HuffPo's liberal political stance is at the very heart of its brand image, but AOL hasn't bought HuffPo to push that liberal agenda, it's a potential opportunity to increase revenues based on the huge audience that visit the Huffington Post.

I don't necessary have a problem with this, One of the great challenges of online media is trying to work out how websites can make any money even with high audience figures. AOL are betting they can find a way with HuffPo.

I'm not sure that any potential profit should be based partly on the work of thousands of unpaid writers, it undervalues the writing and journalism produced. It's no surprise that HuffPo even before the AOL deal had a number of critics over its business model.

LA Times writer Tim Rutten was quoted in the Guardian comparing the Post’s business model to a ‘galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates’ Harsh words!

He went on to say that the deal ‘will push more journalist more deeply into the tragically expanding low wage sector of our increasingly brutal economy.’

These comments caught my attention. You've got to value the content produced and the time and effort that's involved in creating it. I haven't read much about AOL's commitment to producing quality journalism or improving HuffPo's content.

The more cynical argument that I partly agree with, says AOL's will look to produce more content that has greater ‘traffic and revenue’ potential’.

By this I mean content like celebrity news stories rather than duller news reports that will attract more page clicks and visitors from search engines like Google.

It’s going to be interesting to see what direction HuffPo takes from now on. Arianna Huffington has already announced that the site will now become more ‘centerist’ rather than liberal. Is this a rebranding process or as some have suggested a sell out of its progressive voice?

Sunday 13 February 2011

The Egyptian revolution

I tweeted a few days ago that I was beginning to think the Egyptian protests were going to fizzle out, and that Honsi Mubarak would cling onto power.

Instead, after 18 days of protest Egypt’s ruler of 30 years finally caved in and resigned.

I’ve been hearing a few comments saying the Egyptian revolution is today’s equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

It doesn’t quite feel like that to me. Maybe it’s because the domestic politics of Egypt and many Middle Eastern countries are unknown to most of us.

When the former communist governments of Eastern Europe fell - it felt monumental as living in the West we were always told that these countries were our biggest enemies.

This isn't the case with the Middle East. We know it's a highly sensitive political region, but if I've learned anything over the last few weeks then it's just how little I know about places like Egypt, and what it's like for people living there.

The world's certainly discovered more about the lives of Egyptians under Mubarak's rule, and the reasons why so many of them have risen up to say they’ve had enough.

The people have made it clear to the ruling establishment and the rest of the world that they want something different and not just the removing of Mubarak.

So what's next for Egypt? The country doesn’t have any real history of democracy, the country has been under military rule or influence for over 40 years.

The removing of one autocratic ruler and the transition to a free and democratic society is still going to be a long and difficult journey.

Now that we’ve had revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt who’s going to be next? I’ve read loads of comments on how various Middle Eastern leaders will be getting very nervous about their own positions, while thousands of ordinary people across the region will be feeling a little braver and more inspired about making some changes in their countries.

The role of Social Media

Having read various reports and analysis, if there’s one thing I’m slightly sceptical about it’s the role that social media played in the Egyptian protests.

I keep hearing how the revolution was the result of ‘The Facebook generation’. Young media savvy Egyptians using Twitter and Facebook to bring about a revolution.

Being a blogger, it’s understandable that I have an interest in social media. I was fascinated for example by the use of Twitter during the Iranian protests in 2009.

Twitter and Facebook are new communications tools that weren’t available to previous generations of revolutionaries and protesters, but as much as I’m a fan of social media, We’re stretching things to say that a autocratic regime of 30 years collapsed because of Twitter.

There’s a romantic view in some circles that information technology and new media will somehow set the people free. I do like to think this myself at times.

What we’re really seeing is that social media is a new battle ground, between peoples and governments.

I’m sure Twitter and Facebook, did help the protesters communicate and spread information, but this revolution would still have occurred regardless of social media.

The free flow of information within social media will of course give all governments a new challenge - particularly authoritarian regimes and dictatorships.

Non democratic governments are already looking at ways in which they can use digital and social media to monitor and control their populations. China and Iran are good examples of this.

The Egyptian authorities made attempts to block the internet which were only partly successful, but we shouldn't get carried away with the role Facebook and Twitter played.

It was still people power that caused the Egyptian revolution and the bravery and determination of thousands of people to stand up to its rulers and say we’ve had enough. Twitter and Facebook just helped get that message across.

Sunday 6 February 2011

Egyptian Protests: What does the West really want?

Like a lot of people I’ve been following the protests in Egypt over the last week. Egypt isn’t the sort of country that dominates the news headlines everyday, but that's what we've been seeing.

It looks as if many Egyptians have had enough of Hosni Mubarak's corrupt and brutal regime that's lasted for the last 30 years.

It's always inspiring to see people rise up against their leaders and demand reform and greater political freedom, but from the point of view of America and other Western powers how much democratic change and freedom do they want to see in Egypt?

For all the faults and criticisms levelled at Mubarak's regime, he's been an ally to the West, been a peaceful neighbour to Israel, and a moderate leading force in Arab politics.

Is it better for the West that a brutal and corrupt leader is removed, even if he guarantees stability in a volatile region - or support a popular uprising that demands greater freedom and democracy but could result in more uncertainty in the Middle East?

Things are changing in the Arab world. We saw it in Tunisia a few weeks ago, and now it's spread to Egypt, it's a domino effect. Who's going to be next?

I don't really know much about the politics of many Arab states but I've been discovering that many countries in the region are ruled by dictators and absolute monarchs.

If I've learned anything from the uprising in Egypt and Tunisia it's this: Many people in these countries want to have what we in the West have. They want democracy, freedom and prosperity.

On the one hand this is great for World leaders in the West, but you can't just create a free and democratic society in a matter of weeks or months.

For all the many faults of brutal dictatorships, they do bring about a form of stability which can have its benefits.

The West have found this in Egypt. Once a figurehead is removed after so many years, you can have a political void, with nobody really sure what will replace it.

This is the dilemma that the West has, Mubarak goes but who or what replaces him? I keep hearing about The Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest opposition group, but the last thing America or or Britain wants is an Islamic state in Egypt.

I think back to Iraq, Saddam Hussein ruled for years, but after he was overthrown following the 2003 invasion, it was as if his removal opened up a can of worms.

We saw sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and Iraq is only just recovering from the political and social chaos.

I'm not saying this will happen in Egypt but it's a really tricky situation for America to deal with. Mubarak's time looks to be up, but we're a long way from finding out who's really going to benefit from this uprising.