Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Time for a real free-speech fightback

Cameron’s anti-extremism strategy could have been ghostwritten by the radical students

Next week will mark the next stage in David Cameron’s long-running strategy to protect freedom and democracy from Islamist radicals by effectively bumping them off himself. From Monday, higher-education institutions in the UK will be legally required to implement policies to vet extremist speakers, stop gender segregation in meetings and introduce policies to protect – that is, spy on – students ‘at risk from radicalisation’.

In a speech to his extremism taskforce yesterday, Cameron named and shamed universities – including King’s College, Queen Mary and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) – expressing concern that, by his count, 70 events featuring so-called hate preachers had taken place in the last year alone. Those universities that do not comply with the new regime will be reported to the Higher Education Funding Council and hit with a court order.

‘It is not about oppressing free speech or stifling academic freedom’, said Cameron, ‘it is about making sure that radical views and ideas are not given the oxygen they need to flourish’. It was a familiar riff on one of the most insidious clichés of our time: ‘I believe in free speech, but…’ Because, make no mistake, it doesn’t matter how many qualifications Dave puts on it, or how many times ministers tell us radical views don’t qualify for rational debate, this is the state actively restricting what students can hear, can say and, ultimately, can think. Universities, supposed bastions of free speech and open discourse, will be subject to binding and stringent state censorship.

We all saw this coming. In his headline counter-terror speech in July, Cameron announced a raft of new measures aimed at tackling so-called radicalisation, including beefing up Ofcom’s powers to take action against broadcasters that give airtime to Islamist nutcases and calling on telecoms companies to release data on our online activity. At first, the Home Office was calling on universities to ban extremists outright. However, this slippery new substitute will have much the same effect – reinforcing a risk-averse culture within universities that will make booking dodgy speakers, Islamist or not, near enough impossible.

Since coming to power in 2010, Cameron has taken the illiberal legacy of New Labour even further. For over a decade, Islamist groups and ideas have been banned by law, and the Prevent strategy, under which universities are obliged to co-operate with counter-terror authorities and allow the surveillance of their students, has been eating away at the liberal values universities are meant to uphold. Now, the wishy-washy provisions of Prevent have been recast as a legal duty, and the definition of what constitutes extremist speech has been watered down. Where, previously, Islamists would have to directly incite violence and terror in order to face censorship, now even ‘non-violent extremism’ – that is, espousing views aligned with those of terrorists – can and will be snuffed out.

The new measures have rightly sparked outrage among HE organisations and students’ unions. Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said ‘universities and colleges rightly cherish, and must continue to promote, academic freedom as a key tenet of our civilised society’. Meanwhile the National Union of Students (NUS) has opposed the measures on the grounds that they would ‘further criminalise Muslims and black people and pose a ‘significant threat to civil liberties and freedom of speech on campuses’. While students’ unions, as private bodies, will not be subject to the new requirements, the NUS is committed to pushing for their repeal.

Now, having long campaigned for unfettered free speech on campus, you might think that we at spiked would be heartened by this response. But you’d be wrong. This limp press-released backlash is not so much ‘too little, too late’ as it is outrageously hypocritical. The only reason the government can so brazenly clamp down on free speech on campus now is because universities and students’ unions have already perfected the art.

Universities were censoring Islamist speakers long before these measures even surfaced. Islamist scholar Haitham al-Haddad was banned from speaking at the University of Kent in March. In November last year, the University of East London called off an event featuring Islamist Imran Mansur. And, for all their caterwauling about demonising Muslims, students’ unions have long been at it, too. In 2013, a tour of universities organised by Muslim cleric Ismail Mufti Ismail Menk was called off after students’ unions expressed concern about his comments calling homosexuality ‘filthy’.

These are not only isolated examples – this censorious attitude is ingrained in university and students’ union policy. For the sake of avoiding bad PR, universities have long maintained speaker-vetting procedures – ironically termed Free Speech Policies – which work to block controversial, be they left, right, Islamic or otherwise. And, lest we forget, the NUS’s longstanding No Platform policy, originally designed to keep out the far-right, bans Hizb-ut-Tahrir – an Islamist group that even the Home Office has not proscribed.

In all the reactions yesterday, the statement from Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, was perhaps the most telling. ‘Universities have… engaged with the government’s Prevent strategy for a number of years’, she said. ‘All universities have protocols and procedures that have to be satisfied before external speakers are given the green light to speak at a campus event.’ Dandridge didn’t challenge the new proposals, seemingly because she recognized they were already more-or-less enforced.

Still, particular scorn must be reserved for students’ unions. While the risk-averse policies of universities have long been open to abuse, it is students’ unions that have done the most to popularise the illiberal logic the government is now adopting. Over the past few years, censorious student activism has hit new and ridiculous heights. Take one look at the NUS-led clampdown on lad culture – which recently received government approval – and you can see where Dave has been getting his ideas from. SU bans on rugby teams, lads’ mags and pop songs, all in the name of protecting women from offence and dunderheaded men from coming under the influence of a mythical ‘rape culture’, chime perfectly with Cameron’s insistence that we should clamp down, not only on terrorist views, but on those ‘intolerant ideas which create a climate in which extremists can flourish’. He may as well have called it terror culture.


Head b*tch struck off

A headteacher who shunned a vulnerable girl at risk of being targeted by paedophiles, has been banned from the classroom for life.

Vanessa Jukes was said to have turned her back on the teenager after branding her a trouble-maker at High Well School in Barnsley, Yorkshire.

This was despite the girl confiding in another member of staff that she only felt safe once behind the school's gates.

The 55-year-old also ordered staff to fake entries on a national attendance database to improve targets, the hearing heard.

Now Jukes has been struck off the professional register by the Secretary of State Education, following a recommendation by a panel from the National College for Teaching and Leadership.

Jukes had 38 pupils in her care while headteacher at High Wells School, which caters for students with severe emotional, social and behavioural difficulties.

The panel heard that she came to regard the girl, known only as Pupil A, as a nuisance after a classroom incident and cancelled the taxi she needed to get to and from school.

The girl was on the child protection register and the hearing was told there were 'sexual exploitation concerns in relation to her.

A parent support adviser told the tribunal 'Pupil A had told her that she felt safest when she was in school'.

The adviser attended regular local authority meetings concerning Pupil A and underlined to the headteacher the importance for the child to be at school.

Jukes agreed, until an incident which took place in December 2011.

The panel were shown a memo, which read: 'I have cancelled taxi UFN.' They understood 'UFN' to mean until further notice.

The headteacher then emailed a colleague: 'If mum rings - we will say need a meeting - but not to rush one. Don't want her in this week at least!'

Jukes was said to have claimed that the girl was at no greater risk, despite the support adviser arguing to the contrary.   

'The lack of any provision caused by the cancellation of the taxi meant Pupil A had too much time on her hands,' the report said.  'This would make her more vulnerable because of her need for attention of any kind.'

The hearing was told that Juke also warned staff of 'consequences' if pupil attendance was not over a 'certain percentage.'

She even told an administration officer to 'mark as present within the school' one boy who had been missing from home for two weeks.

The admin officer also said that Ms Jukes instructed her 'to enter incorrect data relating to exclusion days and totals onto the Governors Report for November 2011'.

She started keeping her own notes about what was being told to change and kept copies in case they were ever needed as evidence, the tribunal  was told.

Jukes, who was appointed Head in June 2010, was suspended in December 2011 and fired in June 2013.

She won an unfair dismissal case but the tribunal also ruled there was a 40 per cent chance the sacking would have been in order if proper procedures had been followed.

Jukes was not present or represented at the hearing which took place in Coventry.

Paul Heathcote, acting on behalf of Education Secretary Nicky Morgan, said: 'Ms Jukes’ actions are a serious departure from the standards expected of a teacher and her behaviour had the potential to seriously affect the education and well-being of pupils.

'The panel has also found Ms Jukes’ behaviour to be dishonest.

'She has shown no insight and there is nothing to suggest her actions were anything other than deliberate.

'There is no evidence that she was acting under duress.'


Happy Birthday, US Department of Education...Now Go Away

Next month marks the 36th anniversary of the establishment of the U.S. Department of Education.

Proponents insisted that such a department would improve federal education spending efficiency as well as student achievement. Opponents countered that there is scant (if any) evidence that increasing federal control over education would achieve either.

Turns out, they were right.

Focusing on just elementary and secondary education, on-budget federal education appropriations increased more than 490 percent in real terms between fiscal years 1965 and 2014, from $13.5 billion to $80.1 billion.

Meanwhile, elementary and secondary enrollment increased by about only 30 percent over the same period, from 42.2 million students to 55 million students (see here and here).

If the U.S. Department of Education had, in fact, lived up to its stated purpose of improving the productivity of federal education spending, then we should see a substantial increase in student performance after its establishment.

But we haven’t.

The longest-running nationally representative math and reading assessment of American students is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as The Nation’s Report Card. Long-term trend results in both subjects are reported on a scale of 0 – 500. Students who score a 300 or above can solve moderately complex problems in math and understand relatively complicated reading materials.

Long-term trend math performance of 17-year-olds in NAEP math has increased only slightly since the early 1970s, from 52 percent of students scoring at 300 or above to 60 percent in 2012 (the latest year results are available), an improvement of just over 15 percent.

Long-term trend NAEP reading performance of 17-year-olds has remained flat since 1978 (the earliest year data are available in this subject), with just 39 percent of 17-year-olds scoring at 300 or above then and in 2012.

Per-pupil expenditures now exceed $12,000 on average nationwide, with the federal government kicking in around 10 percent of that amount.

So it appears the U.S. Department of Education has done little if anything to improve the bang-for-buck ratio with regard to federal education spending and student achievement.

But it’s also worth considering how much the actual department is costing taxpayers in terms of administrative expenses and overhead. According to the education department’s 2015 Salaries and Expenses Overview:

    The Department’s programs and responsibilities have grown substantially over the past decade. There has been landmark legislation affecting the very core of the Department’s business. From elementary and secondary education reform to the transition to 100 percent direct lending, the past decade has seen a steady and significant growth in Department workload (p. Y-4).

The average education department staff salary exceeds $100,000 jumping to nearly $170,000 on average for senior and executive level staff. In all, the education department requested salary and expense discretionary funding of nearly $2.1 billion in 2015, an increase of nearly $305 million (9 percent) from 2014 (pp. Y and Y-10).

Back in 1866, when the idea of a national education department was first being debated in Congress, opponent Rep. Samuel J. Randall of Pennsylvania predicted that it would amount to:

    ...a bureau at an extravagant rate of pay, and an undue number of clerks collecting statistics . . . [that] does not propose to teach a single child . . . its a, b, c’s.

Nearly 150 years of federal interference in education is enough. As US Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) noted in Conscience of a Conservative in 1960:

    ...the federal government has no funds except those it extracts from the taxpayers who reside in the various States. The money that the federal government pays to State X for education has been taken from the citizens of State X in federal taxes and comes back to them, minus the Washington brokerage fee".

It’s time to end the US Department of Education and put the real education experts back in charge of education funding: students’ parents.

Education savings accounts (ESAs) for K-12 students first enacted in Arizona in 2011, and four more states since then, would be a much better way to ensure funding goes to students and the educational services they need instead of a pricey DC bureaucracy.

The ESA concept is simple. All the program and administrative overhead funding we now send to the US Department of Education should instead be deposited into student ESAs. With those funds parents could purchase the educational services and materials they think are best for their children, and any leftover funds would remain in students’ ESAs for future expenses, such as college tuition.

Importantly, ESAs are fiscally accountable because quarterly expense reports (with receipts) from parents and ongoing audits help ensure funds are not misspent.

Ultimately, parents know and love their children best, not the feds. They, not some far-off government bureaucracy, should be in charge of their children’s education.


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