Thursday, 19 February 2015

Finding a practical solution to the death penalty

This rather horrifying headline appeared in The Times last week:

Oklahoma plans to use gas chamber for executions

The story (£) revealed that the US was 'on course to use nitrogen gas to execute inmates by suffocation' despite its being an 'untested method of capital punishment that is set to be adopted because European countries refuse to export the drugs used in lethal injections'.

According to the Associated Press, Oklahoma City Republican Mike Christian justified such a plan by saying:

'You wouldn't need a medical doctor to do it. It's a lot more practical. It's efficient.'

Obviously, practicality and efficiency in such matters, in what is apparently a modern democracy, are the most important considerations.

Faced with such inconvenient blocking tactics by European countries, where the death penalty has been abolished completely - save for the dysfunctional dictatorships in Belarus and Kazakhstan - Oklahoma is not the only US state whose reaction is not to follow an apparently civilised course. Instead, it, and places like Utah, are choosing to follow a course more familiar to the regimes of Iran and Communist China, and inevitably infused with sickening echoes of Nazi Germany.

In Utah, its House of Representatives passed a plan to bring back the firing squad. It has yet to reach the senate. The bill's chief sponsor, Republican Paul Ray, believes such an execution method is more humane and faster than lethal injection and in the state's best financial interests. Another great bonus of the firing squad, of course, is none of those holding a rifle knows who fired the fatal shot.

There is something horrifyingly callous, mechanised and officious in the way these elected officials speak. For them, it appears, the death penalty is little more than a process, as much an arm of the state as the tax office or rubbish collection; choosing the method of execution is more finding, in a very real sense, a practical solution to a problem and less a form punishment.

In a brief moment of respite last week, I picked up The Best of Benn, a new collection of Tony Benn's writings and diary jottings from over his life and it featured a 1963 essay published in The Guardian where he had this to say on one particularly chilling practice while studying the death penalty in the US:

'In the execution shed of one American prison which I visited sixteen years ago they were proud of a little device they had invented for spreading the responsibility still further. When the murderer was standing hooded and roped on the trapdoor, a signal was given to eight warders locked alone in another room. Each then pressed a different button while a spinning roulette wheel outside made its random electric contact with one of the buttons and released the catch that dropped the convict to his fate. ERNIE, the Premium Bond machine, couldn't have done it better.'

If only such horrors were confined to historical articles.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Times tables and shaking hands

My times tables book was nothing as interesting as this....
and how many times tables books has Carol Vorderman done?

It is, one presumes, a sure sign of ageing when, after reading a headline about education, my first reaction is to bemoan ‘well it wasn’t like that in my day’.

This was certainly my instinctive response to the story about the latest policy emanating from the education secretary Nicky Morgan. In her ministerial wisdom, she has decreed that every 11-year-old in the country must be able to recite their 12-times table, write a coherent short story and be able to read a novel. Any schools which fail to do so two years running will face ‘a takeover by new leadership teams and will be forced to become academies’.

These ‘targets’ are, surely, a statement of the obvious and do not seem to me to be particularly ambitious. I can’t remember exactly at what age I was when I had to recite, by myself, the 12 times table to my headmistress, the daunting Mrs Adams, but it was certainly no more than six. It was a ritual the whole class had to go through; a trudge up several flights of stairs to her office, which in my hazy memory is dark, cushioned and smoky.

I should add that – despite the last sentence – I was not schooled at Gradgrind’s academy. We were well-taught, it was fun. We were all rewarded for being good at something and a few of the friends I made then  - more than 30 years ago – are still friends today. And, there was something very satisfying about being considered good enough to visit Mrs Adams and correctly recite the 12-times table. What’s more, this and similar experiences taught me a variety of useful skills that have helped me in daily life.

I am not sure – though I appreciate that mastering our times tables is of enormous value in life – that, as a six-year-old, making that lonely ascent to the office, I was aware that Britain’s position on the international stage was at stake. I was interested to hear, however, on Broadcasting House this morning, Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, the former head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, saying that the issue ‘goes to the heart of whether the UK is going to succeed in global competition and where we rate in 10 years’ time’. Appearing alongside her, Peter Gowers, the chief executive of Travelodge, concurred, adding, on what might seem a more mundane level, that:

‘…so many of the people we see at 16 do have these basic gaps in their literacy and accuracy. We’re not talking about sophisticated skills, we’re talking about the essentials of everyday life’.

Somewhat startlingly, Mr Gowers also said that he had recently put 7,000 people through training, ‘learning about eye contact and shaking hands’ as, in the hospitality industry, such skills were essential.

‘We are growing up with a generation of teenagers many of whom can’t do these basic things….. it’s not a life skill they bring to work’.

Even if we accept that there might be a smidgen of exaggeration in this, it would seem that there is widespread concern that children are simply not grasping some basic and essential skills needed for life in the workplace and at least the government is trying to do something about it.

Learning times tables and how to greet someone properly are very useful, vital, tools indeed. We should certainly be ambitious enough to hope that a majority of children will be able to master these before they leave primary school.

Having said all of the above, it must be remembered that, for whatever reason, some children will simply be unable to achieve some, or all, of these targets. Bringing in new headteachers – even if they do not live in smoky dens at the top of the stairs – and converting the schools into academies, inevitably adding to bureaucracy and long periods of instability, will not change this or do much to help pupils. Indeed, those failing are quite likely to be the worst affected.  

The government likes academies as it breaks the strangle-hold of the local education authorities; so while the government might well wish to its academy-programme expand with even greater rapidity in the future – using a child’s education as the means to push its political agenda – politicians will find that just issuing diktats from Whitehall won’t just make it happen.