Issue 219: 2017 11 16: Pre-school brain-training (Lynda Goetz)

16 November 2017

Pre-School Brain-Training

Brits need to look at other countries.

By Lynda Goetz

When it comes to education, we in Britain tend to think (as indeed we do in many other areas) that we are leading the rest of the world.  Sadly, when it actually comes down to it, there are many other countries from which we could be taking some lessons.  Our overriding preoccupation appears to be with attainment and initially with the three Rs.  Our belief that the earlier we start teaching these, the better the likely outcome, not only flies in the face of the facts, but almost certainly contributes to the stress of our children.  In an international survey conducted last year by the Social Policy Research Unit at the University of York, British children came very near the bottom (13th out of 16) in a table rating the happiness of eight, ten and twelve year-old schoolchildren.  Astonishingly perhaps to those of us who remember the days of horror stories from Romanian orphanages, Romania tops the list for children’s well-being.

In spite of a number of reports over the last few decades highlighting the benefits of pre-school being dedicated to aural learning and play, the increasing tendency in this country has been to subject nursery age children to the rigours of learning their letters and numbers and how to read and write; literacy and numeracy in other words.  This has the effect of prolonging a process which in many other countries does not start until much later and which thus lasts for a much shorter duration.

As some may be aware, many of the Scandinavian countries do not start formal schooling until seven.  In this country it now starts at four.  In Finland, ranked last year as the world’s most literate nation and at the top of Europe’s comprehensive school rankings for the last 16 years, they believe that “children under seven are not ready to start school.  They need time to play and be physically active.  It’s a time for creativity”.  These were the words of Tiina Marjomieni, head of the Franzenia Daycare Centre in Helsinki, spoken to Guardian journalist Patrick Butler when he visited the centre last year for an article on Finnish Pre-school Education.  The main focus of Finnish pre-school education is absolutely not formal learning, but the promotion of the well-being of the children and the introduction to ‘the joy of learning’ through both free-play and teacher-directed play.  This has been shown to have greater long-term benefits for disadvantaged as well as privileged children.

David Whitebread, director of The Centre for Research on Play in Development, Education and Learning at Cambridge University, is a great supporter of this approach to pre-school education and believes that play at this stage in development can engage children in the process of learning.  He was one of the 130 signatories to a letter to The Daily Telegraph on 11th September 2013, which argued that the UK should consider this approach and concluded that ‘in the interests of children’s academic achievements and their emotional well-being, the UK government should take the (supporting) evidence seriously’.  David Whitebread is part of the Too Much, Too Soon Campaign, which since that launch in 2013 has tried (without it has to be said much success) to move the UK government away from the current emphasis on pre-school literacy and numeracy in favour of creative and expressive play.

On 4th November a Telegraph article reported that two young Afghanistan war veterans, Oliver Holcroft and Rufus Gordon-Deane, believe they have perfected the way to ‘unlock a child’s genius’.  Put that way, it apparently appeals to the celebrities and ‘tiger’ mums of Chelsea and Notting Hill, who have been signing up to the pair’s pre-school classes (Tarka London) in droves.  The Telegraph would appear to be somewhat late in writing about the winning formula employed by Tarka, as Sophia Money-Coutts was drooling about the ‘handsome’ pair in Tatler way back in January and they have been going since 2015. However, what they are peddling is effectively exercise for pre-school kids.  Why?  Because most kids these days (privileged or otherwise) do not get enough of it and it is exercise and play (not the ability to read at three) that is crucial to children’s development, as the Scandinavians have long since shown.

The founders of Tarka (what a great name) acknowledge the debt they owe to the Scandinavian approach to pre-school education, and their web-site contains facts and figures to back up their claim of providing ‘structured exercise to promote cerebral development’.  In a page on the University of Cambridge website School starting age: the evidence David Whitebread sets out a review of the research evidence, which alongside other studies and the Scandinavian success stories, really does appear to provide all the support one might want or need to shift the emphasis in our nurseries and early school years.  In spite of this, campaigners still have a fight on their hands to get ministers to abandon Baseline Assessment for 4 year-olds (Better without Baseline).  The pilot plan to assess children going into Reception was abandoned in April 2016, but as recently as 14 September the government in its plans for the future of primary assessment has once again included the idea of tests for 4 year-olds – opposed not only by those who believe the Scandinavian way is better and healthier, but by many of the primary school teaching staff.  As our worldwide rankings in terms of both attainment and mental and physical well-being fall lower and lower, why are we increasingly obsessed with testing children and why can those in government not listen to the experts and look around the world to see how others can, at least sometimes, do things better than we do?

 

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Issue 128: 2017 11 09: Contents

09 November 2017: Issue 128

The Week’s News

A Lens On The Week

Comment

Tick The Box by John Watson

A system for the simple.

Lenin’s Remains Remain by Neil Tidmarsh

It’s not easy to bury the spirit of 1917.

May In Six Minutes by J R Thomas

Are we back with Neville Chamberlain?

The Beginning Of The End by Frank O’Nomics

Politics is impinging on central bank independence.

Sleazebusting Diary Of A Corbynista by Don Urquhart

The recess cannot come soon enough.

Features

An Advance Too Many? by Chin Chin

Chin Chin loses column.

Reviews

The Retreat (by Sam Bain)

The Park Theatre

reviewed by Adam McCormack

Letters

Letter from Mr Timothy Marshalla

Puzzles, Crossword and Calendar

Crossword by Boffles: “Plain Vanilla 26“.

Solution to the last crossword “Independence“.

Quiz by Boffles

Answers to Quiz

What’s on in November 2017 by AGGro.

Earlier EditionsLarge 600x271 stamp prompting the reader to join the subscription list

Issue 123: 05 October 2017

Issue 124: 12 October 2017

Issue 125: 19 October 2017

Issue 126: 26 October 2017

Issue 127: 02 November 2017

 

Issue 129: 2017 11 16: The Tesco Advertisement (John Watson)

16 November 2017

The Tesco Advertisement

What are immigrants invited to join?

By John Watson

It is all rather surprising.  When I heard that Tesco were being attacked on Twitter over the inclusion of Muslim families in their Christmas advertisement, I not unnaturally supposed that it was the work of Islamic fundamentalists.  Some North London ayatollahs, perhaps, long bearded, clad in white robes and furious at the apostasy suggested by their flock’s participation in the great Christian festival, or at least in the excessive materialism which now pollutes it.

As readers will know by now, that wasn’t the case at all.  The objections came from Christian parts of the community, angry that their Muslim neighbours should be allowed to participate in an important part of our lives.  It is an odd approach, when you think about it.  For one thing the celebration of Christmas has not been restricted to believers in the Gospels for many a long year.  A huge majority of the population celebrates Christmas and yet only a small number go to church.  Should atheists and agnostics be barred from the celebration as well?  They are not Christians either.

The truth is of course that Christmas has long had a dual nature.  For the practising Christian it is a hugely important religious festival, commemorating the start of the most important life in human history. For others it is merely a tradition, an occasion to celebrate family and friends which, although rooted in religion, has become a part of the secular culture.  What possible reason could there be for objecting to the participation of Muslim families, even devout Islamic families, from this part of our national life?

This column often lays stress on the nature of the invitation which Britain extends to its immigrants.  It is not an invitation to colonise parts of our cities and to live apart from us there.  It is to share in the life we lead, with our values, our traditions and our culture.  Of course they will have their own religion.  We have no desire to “open windows into men’s souls” any more than did Elizabeth I, nor to start telling them or anyone else what they should or should not believe.  Nonetheless, the long term aim must be to increase social integration, and those who sneer at Tesco’s advertisement should reflect on how well their attitudes fit in with that.

Many people find the secularisation of Christmas (and the focus on consumption which it has brought in its wake) offensive, either on religious grounds or because of the emphasis on greed, laziness, couch potatoism and indulgence.  Still, like it or not it has become an institution – part of the way in which many of us live – and it is hard to see why immigrants should be excluded from it any more than they are barred from watching football matches or going to parties.  If they are not to be barred, why should Tesco not include them in its advertisements?

One cannot help but think that there is a catch twenty-two at the bottom of all this.  If you are an immigrant who does not participate in British life, you are criticised for trying to set up some sort of ghetto on British soil.  If you do participate then you are indulging in a form of cultural appropriation, linking into a culture where you do not belong.  Either way, one set or another of tweeters will be after you and the likelihood is that the two sets of tweeters comprise exactly the same rather nasty sneering people.

Perhaps we should end by going back a couple of millennia to the days when Christ did indeed walk the stony pathways of Palestine.  It is way beyond the remit of this column to explain who he was or what he was there to do.  One point does, however, stand out from the second chapter of Luke.  He was “a light to lighten the Gentiles”, carrying his message beyond those of Jewish blood and out into the wider world. His teachings were for all, whatever their religion.  It would be odd indeed to start excluding people from the celebration of his birth, however secularised, merely because they came from the wrong racial group.

 

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Issue 129: 2017 11 16: Sexing Up Paradise (Chin Chin)

16 November 2017

Sexing Up Paradise

An exclusive exposé.

By Chin Chin

It’s a Brave New World and a cold one.  Demoted from weekly to occasional columnist by the editors of the Shaw Sheet, how on earth am I going to get my articles accepted?  Something spectacular is needed.  Rebranding, yes, that’s the thing.  I’ll reinvent myself, focus on an area which will make me an invaluable asset of the magazine.  What is it to be?  War correspondent? – Too risky.  Food & Drink? – My waistline will not allow.  Theatre and film? – Full of North London types talking about themselves.  I know!  I’ll be an investigative reporter!  Slouch hat, dirty raincoat, all the doings.  After all, is there a better time to enter investigative journalism than following the release of more of those Paradise papers?

I’ve seen it done on Panorama and it doesn’t look too difficult. You walk around with an enquiring and mildly shocked expression, like a slightly goofy oyster which has just been opened.  Then you stick a microphone up someone’s nose as they get into their car and leap out of the way as they roar off.  Another dose of the oyster expression, a couple of breathless references to “offshore” and the case is made, even though no one understands quite what it is.

Okay, Panorama is different.  The Shaw Sheet is in print so, unless they include a good photo, nobody will actually see me.  What a waste of my oyster impression.  Still, there is no harm in practising it in the mirror to get in the mood.  Let’s get the breathing right: in, out, in, and then “offshore”.

To be a successful investigative reporter you have to reveal something sensational.  What is it going to be?  There’s not much point in investigating American companies.  There any rolling up of profits offshore would be between them and the US Revenue, hardly of interest to British readers.  Then there are structures set up by media stars to avoid tax on their earnings.  Not much surprising there and anyway there are far juicier stories about the media going the rounds at the moment.  No, I need a story which strikes at the very fabric of society.  Tell you what, I’ll write about the offshore investments of the Duchy of Lancaster, a portfolio of assets run by the great and good on behalf of the Queen.  We know there is something fishy there.  After all Frank Field, Chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee of the House of Commons (a double brainer by any measure), has called for the board controlling the investments to be replaced.

Right, here is the plan.  Find out where the Duchy of Lancaster invests its money and turn up on the doorstep.  Stick a microphone in someone’s face and jump out of the path of their car.  Then make the oyster face.  Get a friend to take a couple of photographs and Bob’s your uncle.  Facebook, fame and fortune in that order.

The difficult question, of course, is just where to do the doorstepping, but luckily last week’s Times comes to the rescue.  The Dutchy invested in the Dover Street VI Cayman Fund LP.  Right, pack the swimsuit and off we go.  Hold on a minute, I had better get the address.  Yes, here it is on Google.  It seems that the fund is run from, er… Boston, Massachusetts.

Oh dear, that isn’t what I’d hoped for at all, so let’s try another one, the Jubilee Absolute Return Fund.  According to Google its address is in Guernsey, not the sun-drenched Cayman Islands I grant you, but tax haven enough for me to write “offshore” in a wink, wink, nudge, nudge sort of way.  Now what is this fund?  Some sort of tax avoidance vehicle, I hope, or at the very least a way of hiding assets kept available for the bribing of foreign officials?  Oops no, it’s rather a respectable hedge fund, and the running of hedge funds offshore is well recognised as legit by the Treasury.  So much so indeed that parliament has enacted special rules to allow the investments of foreign hedge funds to be managed from the UK.  Worse still, any profits made by investors will be taxed in full under our offshore funds regime.  Not much scandal about that one then.

It was at this point that a horrid thought struck me.  Suppose that all of the Duchy’s overseas investments were in perfectly respectable funds that didn’t give investors any tax advantage?  What would happen to my story?  How could I launch my new career as an investigative reporter?

Luckily there is one big thing on my side.  The tax laws are too complicated for most people to understand and there clearly is lots of naughty avoidance offshore by big corporations, media stars and the like.  If I mixed the topics up a bit and used the word “offshore” in the right way, I should be able to smear the Duchy’s investments quite successfully.  What did you say?  Not quite respectable to mislead the public?  Well, that’s an out-of-date attitude if you like.  Both sides did it royally in the lead up to the Brexit referendum.  It’s perfectly usual nowadays.

 

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Issue 127: 2017 11 02: Contents

02 November 2017: Issue 127

The Week’s News

A Lens On The Week

Comment

A Long Time In Politics by John Watson

Keeping the real issues at the top.

Creating A New State by Neil Tidmarsh

The most dangerous and reckless of all political endeavours.

Greed And The City by J R Thomas

A crisis in popularity.

Don’t Panic! by Frank O’Nomics

We should not be concerned by a rise in UK rates.

Halloween Diary Of A Corbynista by Don Urquhart

Things can only get scarier.

Features

A Matter Of Time by Chin Chin

An extra hour in bed.

Language And How To Lose It by Lynda Goetz

Evolution not devolution.

Reviews

Three Mothers (by Matilda Velevitch)

Waterloo East Theatre

reviewed by Adam McCormack

Puzzles, Cartoons and Calendar

Cartoons by AGGro.

Crossword by Boffles: “Independence“.

Solution to the last crossword “Bird Talk“.

What’s on in November 2017 by AGGro.

Earlier EditionsLarge 600x271 stamp prompting the reader to join the subscription list

Issue 122: 28 September 2017

Issue 123: 05 October 2017

Issue 124: 12 October 2017

Issue 125: 19 October 2017

Issue 126: 26 October 2017

 

Issue 128: 2017 11 09: An Advance Too Many? (Chin Chin)

09 November 2017

An Advance Too Many?

Chin Chin loses column.

By Chin Chin

Reduced to an occasional writer!  Well, I knew that there were changes afoot at the Shaw Sheet but this is ridiculous.  In I came, cheery as always, half an hour before the others so that I have a moment to tidy their desks before they arrive – I am the only tidy one around here so it is the least I can do.  Then I turned on my screen and there was a message to see the editor at once.  Obviously some sort of promotion or perhaps an especially important task which I was to carry out.  Or maybe one of the other magazines had made a bid for my work and, like a champion footballer, I was being called in to discuss the amount of the transfer fee.

It turned out not to be like that at all.  I was just told that I would lose my weekly slot and my desk in the office and would, in future, have to work from home and compete for space with other writers.  It was a surprise, I can tell you.  Of course, I asked why, wondering whether my talent was unbalancing the magazine or whether political correctness had forced them to give opportunities to the talentless younger generation.  Instead of an explanation, I got a look:

“I think we know the answer to that, Chin, don’t we?”

Now the Shaw Sheet is a political and current affairs magazine so, although I write features, I keep well up to date with what is going on.  So I understood that look.  In the current climate it could only mean one thing.  I was suspected of using my position and influence to make unwarranted sexual advances to my colleagues.  The difficulty was that I couldn’t remember doing it.  To be fairly caught out after years of groping and propositioning would be galling enough but at least you would have done, and presumably enjoyed, the groping and propositioning first.  To be blamed for such activities without the activities themselves seemed a little unfair.  I cast my mind back to think of things which I had done which could possibly be being misconstrued.

There are two aspects to this unwarranted sexual advance business.  The central thing is the advance itself, the illicit caress, the lewd invitation or whatever.  I drew a blank when I tried to think of any of those so perhaps it was better to start with the other ingredient, a dominant position which could render any advance “sexual bullying”.  If I could work out who I dominated then perhaps it would bring to mind something which would have offended them.

Well, it was true.  My position in the Shaw Sheet might technically be that of a lowly columnist but my influence goes way beyond that.  Magazines are a bit like banks.  In banking circles everyone is in awe of the rainmaker, a man or woman who brings in the business and whose presence makes a major contribution to the bottom line.  Often they will be known by nicknames, “the blue whale” or something like that.  Their formal ranking within the banking hierarchy, however, does not matter because their position is underpinned by the work they bring in.  No rainmaker, no deals.  No deals, no profit.  No profit, no bank.  They have to be paid a lot of money.

Somewhere in the Kremlin

Well, apart from the “a lot of money” bit, my position at the Shaw Sheet is very similar.  Magazines need readers and it is my column which attracts them.  Take our Russian readers for example, probably burly chaps working in the “Western Magazine” section of the KGB.  Do they open their Shaw Sheet to read the views of the editors on the news?  Niet, of course they don’t.  They have their own analysts.  Did they open it to peruse the, now-defunct, “week in brief” columns?  Niet again, their agency created most of the incidents and election victories reported.  No, they want cultural articles which will bring home the nuances of modern British thought.  They want Chin Chin and until now they have had an article from him every week.

All right, that is the dominance established.  I dominate the entire staff.  So what could I possibly have said or done that could be regarded as a sexual pass?  The editors are charming enough as it happens but I have never really fancied either of them in that way.  Could it be that the postcards which I sent them while I was on holiday have been misconstrued?  You see I wanted to make it clear that I was enjoying myself and not some sort of saddo, so I went on a website which sends postcards and arranged for everyone in the office to get a picture of a beach in France.  I see now that it left a margin for error in execution but it was certainly better than admitting that I spent my holiday in my basement flat in North London.  Anyway, I must have pressed the wrong button because the beach was entirely populated with naked men.  I tried to pass it off as a joke on my return but maybe they thought that it was some sort of sexual pressure.  Still, it is rather a difficult thing to explain away now.

Well, I suppose I had better pack my desk and then go home and write some article which they just have to publish.  It shouldn’t be difficult bearing in mind the quality of the competition.  Hold on, I hear voices down the corridor.

“That bloody cretin Chin Chin has been fiddling with my desk again and now I can’t find that cheque.  I have told him to work from home in future.  At least he will have no opportunity to mess up our desks each morning.”

Oh.

 

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Issue 128: 2017 11 09: Tick The Box (John Watson)

09 November 2017

Tick The Box

A system for the simple.

By John Watson

It is always illuminating to read the Shaw Sheet’s “Diary of a Corbynista” and last week’s column was no exception. One of the areas on which it cast light was the NHS tracker which tells you how your local hospital has done against certain government targets: that 95% of accident and emergency admission should be treated or admitted within four hours, that 85% of cancer referrals should begin treatment within sixty-two days, and that 92% of planned operations should take place within an eighteen week period.  I immediately looked up my own local hospital, which happens to be UCH.  Although it’s overall rating was “good” it was outside all three targets and anyone looking at the tracker alone might think that it seemed a sleepy sort of hospital and decide to go somewhere else.

The trouble is that they would be wrong.  There is nothing in the slightest sleepy about it.  I have been in and out of UCH on a number of occasions and have always been hugely impressed by the professionalism, expertise and the quality of care.  Everyone else from round here says the same and we all congratulate ourselves on being fortunate enough to have such a world-leading facility on our doorsteps.

And yet if you just read the tracker you might be tempted to go somewhere else, where perhaps they take a little less time checking out their accident admissions and as a result hit that particular government target.  You would have been misled by perfectly accurate statistics whose only weakness is that they do not give a full enough picture.

Moving on through last week’s Shaw Sheet I came upon the same point in a different guise. J R Thomas in his piece “Greed and the City” focused on short-termism, contrasting the demand for immediate returns by most financial institutions, pension funds and private investors with the longer views taken by strategic investors such as Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway.  As Thomas points out in the context of bank shares, if management will not provide short-term returns then they will find their hand forced by corporate raiders.

This all makes it difficult for the chief executive.  If he uses his cash to pay dividends or to return money to shareholders, he will be the darling of his investors.  If he invests his cash in the business, the value of his shares may decline because of the importance of short term investor cash flow in valuation.

It is a different form of the hospital point.  Prospective dividend yield is a crucial element in share valuation but it only tells you so much.  The rate of treatment of accident and emergency patients is important but it does not define the service provided by the hospital as a whole.  The risk in each case is that we take a perfectly good piece of information but then attach too much importance to it.

Of course medicine and business are not alone in this.  Schools have their position in the tables and take great care to brush up on the things which will be reflected in their scores, occasionally at the expense of other things more crucial to their pupils.  Universities too are now highly graded with much emphasis, often survey based, on the student experience.  We live in an age of check sheets and box ticking with carefully set tests continually being gamed by those who wish to get a particular result.

The rise of the scorecard has resulted in a change in the way in which people appraise things.  Once upon a time they would have looked at an institution as a whole or at least listened to those who had undertaken an overall review.  Now they look at tables of figures which are simply the aggregate result of a whole lot of box ticking.  It is valid information, of course, but it derives from a mechanical process rather than from judgement.  It is therefore more likely to give a distorted view.

It is easy to see how we got here.  Experienced people with judgement do not grow on trees and a box ticking exercise can be carried on by functionaries.  A move towards the latter makes things simpler and more verifiable.  No judgement is needed so there is no question of blaming an individual if things go wrong.  The authorities can just set a new check list or two and claim to have acted.  What is more the move saves costs because the people who compile the figures need to be much less educated and perceptive than experts.  One day most of them will not be people at all but merely computers.

The movement towards checklists may reduce the quality of the information reaching the user, but it has a supply-side implication as well.  Commentators on the effect of computerisation on jobs tend to soothe their readers’ anxieties with the idea that there will be more interesting jobs left for humans.  That must mean a demand for roles requiring judgement, so we will need to provide lots of these; perhaps a start would be for us all to rely less on the aggregation of tick sheets and more on human perception.

 

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Issue 127: 2017 11 02: A Long Time In Politics (John Watson)

02 November 2017

A Long Time In Politics

Keeping the real issues at the top.

By John Watson

A well-worn quotation it may be, but there is a good reason for that.  Prime Minister Harold MacMillan’s reply to the question of what he most feared, “Events, dear boy, events,” sums up the position of every political leader.  It is the unexpected, coming out of nowhere, which knocks the most carefully laid plans off course.

This week it is the Parliamentary sex scandal.  We comment elsewhere (The Lens on the Week) on some of the difficulties to which that is likely to give rise but who, two weeks ago, could possibly have foreseen it?  Now it seems destined to rip through Parliament as did the expenses scandal before it, breaking reputations and bringing down respected figures, even perhaps ministers.  It is not quite such a bizarre course of events as the destabilisation of the Australian government because some of their MPs turn out to have dual nationality, but it runs it a close second.  There are some things which even the most vigilant government cannot prepare against.

The sex scandal is, of course, only one of the twists and turns which make the last week in politics seem longer than usual (try the developing crisis in Catalonia for another).  But in the end when the Oxford History of England catches up with the events of 2017, it will be no more than a footnote.  The pivotal points remain as before.  What will Mrs May pay in order to move the Brexit negotiations forward, and can Philip Hammond afford to loosen some of the strings of austerity?

In a way these issues are linked in that both of them turn on spending money and raise the question of how much there is to spend.  In the first though the issue is primarily one of cosmetics and timing.  No one really thinks that the €20 billion contribution to committed expenditure will be the only payment which we make when we leave the EU.  Talk in the rumour mill is of a total of €40 billion, or even €60 billion.  The difficulty is that although if this sort of bill came with a satisfactory trade deal the public would probably accept it (could there be a clearer case of essential capital expenditure?), as a precondition to talks it is less palatable and would certainly not pass the hawk-eyed scrutiny of the more aggressive Brexitiosi.

Whether Mrs May can quietly indicate a figure and make it conditional on a trade agreement is difficult to gauge and, although it would probably be the sensible place to go commercially, would involve the EU softening its red line conditions for the beginning of trade talks.  Who knows how this could be fudged?  Discussions about trade which were not formal trade negotiations against a proposed figure which was not formally being offered.  It would mean a little duplicity on both sides but that is how the best diplomacy works.

The question of austerity is probably a more difficult one, and one with which Mr Hammond will come face-to-face in his autumn budget.  Last year’s figures are a bit better than expected but everyone seems to agree that there are threatening clouds on the horizon.  It is likely that the Bank will raise interest rates so there will be additional payments on government debt.  There could well be a mark down in GDP which would increase the sensitive debt/GDP ratio.  It seems likely that if Mr Hammond is to increase public sector pay, taxes will have to creep up.  That will involve moving some of the national cake from the taxpayer to state employees – never a popular reallocation in the Conservative party but then they won’t like the idea of losing the next election either.

According to the Policy Editor of The Times, ministers have now conceded that the vote on the Brexit deal will not be a simple question of “take it or leave it” but rather a detailed vote on the different aspects of the proposed agreement.  If that is right – and it has suggested that it will be announced shortly – it will surely make little difference.  Once the deal has been negotiated, everyone will be well aware that either it will go through as it is or it will fall.  However much Parliament might be given the technical right to vote on various issues there will be little reality behind that.  An MP who is in favour of the deal but votes it down on a single aspect is unlikely to get much sympathy from electors.   Perhaps then this change will be a non-event in Harold Macmillan’s terms and not something which the government need worry too much about.  But it focuses the mind on something more general.  It is important that the Brexit deal is regarded as the best that can be done by all the major parties.  When (and I suppose one should say “if”) we get to the trade talks, anything the government can do to promote a cross party approach will be valuable.  General public support for any deal which is struck would be the best way of moving forward to a new future.

 

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Issue 127: 2017 11 02: Language and how to lose it (Lynda Goetz)

02 November 2017

Language And How To Lose It

Evolution not devolution.

By Lynda Goetz 

Last week language featured in two articles in the Shaw Sheet.  Its importance to human cultures, ventures and civilisations cannot be over-estimated.  Some scientists have argued that language, as opposed simply to communication, is one of the features which distinguishes humans from other species. Without wishing to go into this complex area in any detail, it is obvious to any thinking person that language matters.  Recent research has finally come down in support of the benefits of bilingualism rather than considering it to be a danger to childhood development.  Not only does language matter, it is crucial to human endeavour.

Emmanuel Macron however considers that he can single-handedly change the French language to suit modern efforts to allow the idea of gender to become irrelevant.  I would argue that language cannot be changed in this way.  Language evolves continually.  Governments cannot legislate to devolve the responsibility for language to a bureaucratic system that attempts to determine how language changes (although of course this is exactly what was done four centuries ago with the creation of the Académie Française).  M. Macron’s attempt to ensure that a politically-correct gender-neutral version of the French language be adopted by the government, the civil service and academics, has been condemned by the Académie, itself frequently accused of imposing unpopular rules on the French language, but defended by feminists.  Who is correct?

French, like many other languages, has masculine and feminine forms.  The old rules dictate that where men and women are included the masculine form be used, as for example in the word ‘amis’.  If only women are represented, then the feminine form ‘amies’ would be used when writing the word (although the pronunciation is in fact no different).  The French government has decided that this is a form of ‘sexual tyranny’ and that the written language should be changed accordingly.  Thus, in future, under the écriture inclusive a mid-punctuation point is inserted; so ‘amis’ becomes ‘amiˑeˑs’ in an attempt to avoid offending or excluding women and transgender people.  In an era when many cannot even be bothered to spell full words, is this really going to work?

‘R U OK 2 meet @ 7? I might be l8’ is an example of a text I have received from a friend in the last few months.  This was not from a teenager, but a woman in her fifties.  If people want to reduce language to this sort of level, how bothered will they be to insert additional punctuation to comply with some government edict?  The Académie, an elitist organisation comprised, it has to be said, of mainly male academics, writers, philosophers and scientists, has frequently been accused of being out of touch with ordinary people.  This is almost certainly true.  Its attempts to prevent the inclusion of Anglicisms in French have rarely been successful.  Common examples would be the use in common parlance of words such as ‘le marketing’, ‘le jogging’, ‘le weekend’ or ‘un email’.  Many of these words deal with modern (Americanised) lifestyles and no amount of ranting by the Académie has prevented their adoption.  So what makes M. Macron think his attempts to dictate how language evolves will be any different?  This is a bid, not by the Académie, but by the government, to impose on people the way their language is written.  Unless it is universally welcomed, it is unlikely to be adopted anywhere other than in those institutions on whom it has been foisted.

The Académie Française was created in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu. “La principale fonction de l’Académie sera de travailler avec tout le soin et toute la diligence possibles à donner des règles certaines à notre langue et à la rendre pure, éloquente et capable de traiter les arts et les sciences, which roughly translated means that the main purpose of this august body was to be responsible for keeping the French language pure.  To this end they produce not only a dictionary, but are also responsible for grammar and orthography, in other words, the way words are written.  It is, of course, an essentially conservative body.  There are a mere 40 ‘immortels’ (or under the new system ‘immortelˑleˑs’) or members, who have stated in a unanimous declaration that Macron’s new rules ‘put the French language in mortal danger’.  They argue, not without reason, that the new forms are clumsy to read and write, even though they are not intended to alter spoken pronunciation.

Caroline de Haas, a feminist activist has apparently countered with the following statement, “The Académie Française is supposed to reflect the evolution of language and new developments as its role is to codify them.  This time, it is trying to go against progress and it is insulting to women.”  Perhaps Mme de Haas has not noticed how largely unsuccessful the Académie has been in its attempts to ‘go against progress’.  Sir Michael Edwards, a poet and professor from London and the only English member of the Académie, has condemned gender-inclusive spellings (‘on purely linguistic grounds’, of course, in case he upsets or offends anyone) as ‘gibberish’.  The legislation and academic arguments will probably hold little sway.  What will matter is how the general populace react.

Computer manufacturers, in the meantime, are reportedly already making plans to overcome the practical obstacles by selling keyboards with a new key to type the mid-point from next year.  What about mobile phone manufacturers, I wonder?

 

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