Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Coast to Coast: The cost of our education policy

The current government is picking up where its predecessors left off - turning our school system into a pointless, punitive mess.

If you don't work in the school system, you might not realise what a monumental year this is for teaching, with huge changes coming in the ways your children are tested, measured, judged and provided for. School quality is to be changed to a measure called Progress 8, wherein a mix of 8 GCSEs are used as a yard stick for quality.

What you also probably won't know is that your kids are going to be punished severely for being unfortunate enough to be living under education secretaries that have no regard for their wellbeing. Variety is no longer encouraged for our children, and in the last decade or so we've seen an erosion of the differing flightpaths that meant anyone with the workrate to succeed stood a great chance.

Labour's push to turn the majority of young people into university education backfired horribly, creating a surge of graduates educated in unspecialised subjects and devaluing the credit undergraduate degrees earned you. Going to university for the sake of it, because you were smart, not necessarily because you had a field you wanted to deepen your expertise in. As a guy that did a three-year law degree purely because I was pretty good at it at A-Level, I can attest to that.

Then came the coalition and a shift towards punishing the young for taking advantage of a system the politicians created. A tripling in university costs, a delegation of responsibility to free schools (disastrous) and academies (why?), and a rhetoric from the wholly unlikeable Michael Gove that your kids have it too easy. Any parent who raises their child with the right amount of dilligence and attention will know that the good modern school puts the children under more pressure than ever before. Constant examinations and targets are set from an early age, and children are taught through blunt repetition to parrot their statistics to any Ofsted officers that might stick their head through the door. There is little learning in schools now, simply training for the next assessment.

The mandatory schooling age has been raised to 18 - a clever way to cut a chunk from unemployment figures - but there is still so much to be done to help those who are unacademic succeed. The new Progress 8 measure places huge weighting on English and Maths, which is fair enough, but Nicky Morgan's plans to make every child take five "core" GCSE's is so ignorant of reality.

Vocational subjects aren't getting less relevant. They're getting more relevant than ever. In a world where so many vocational jobs are being replaced by machinery, we need to give these kids the base knowledge early on, so they can specialise quickly enough to stand a chance. There's thousands of job opporunities for vocationally-minded people in all industries. Graphic designers, construction workers, mechanics and safety operators are always going to be needed, but we aren't letting our children know that these choices are okay to make.

Alternate forms of examination, that have helped unacademic children grab themselves a semblance of societal qualification in this stupid system, are being scrapped. "Too easy", they call the IGCSE in English, a coursework-focused qualification that's being chopped next year. Tell that to the bottom set year 11 children I taught, who cried with happiness when they scraped themselves a C grade by the skin of their teeth. They knew that, with that one letter, the world would judge them as a smarter individual and a better person. They knew that, if they'd gotten two marks less and a D grade, that they'd be forgotten about and left with very few options.

Your children aren't oblivious to their fate, but it's so sad that they can do nothing about the hardships forced upon them by Westminster in the name of performance, nostalgia and ideology.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Kanye West, the world's greatest living rock star

Scoff as much as you like, but the truth is self-evident: Kanye West was right when he called himself the greatest living rock star on the planet.

This grandiose statement of himself, the sort we are not unaccustomed to, came during his controversial headline set at Glastonbury on Saturday night. Social media erupted with anger. HOW DARE HE? screamed thousands of "music fans", he doesn't even play rock music! But the truth is that, in every single possible definition of the word other than he plays music with two guitars, bass and drums, there's not an artist in the world alive that's as rock and roll as Kanye West.

What do you define as "a rock star"? Do you need to play music to be one? If so, why is it we commonly use the term to define things that have nothing to do with rock music, like lifestyle, haircuts or demeanour?

In terms of attitude, Kanye is one of the old breed of rock stars. A brash, can't-be-bothered to engage interviewee who says what he wants to say because he knows you wouldn't have asked to speak to him if you didn't want to hear it. When John Lennon calls The Beatles bigger than Jesus, or the Gallagher brothers direct some sweary tirade towards their peers, we canonise them as leaders of the pack, stars of such clear and present talent that they have simply become aware of their own destiny.

Kanye says what he wants, and gets nothing but mocking from the media. Sure, he's made some inconsiderate proclamations over the years - the Taylor Swift thing, the George Bush thing - but Kanye has always apologised. If you can forgive Lennon for beating his first wife, cheating on his second and disowning his eldest son, you can forgive Kanye for spoiling Taylor's precious moment.

If you want to talk in terms of decadence, Kanye lives the rock star life to the extreme. A world leader in style for a decade, Kanye dresses how he wants and has frequently shaped the face of men's fashion. Remember that leather skirt he wore in the N****s In Paris video? Of course you do: faux leather has made a comeback since, those over-long, loose ASOS shirts and jeans. At a time when white fashion has dived into repeating earlier decades, Kanye dresses like a futuristic hobo and gives no fucks that he looks different.

He's a role model for anyone that doesn't fit in in more ways than just dress sense. From the early stages of his career, West has been separate from the pack. His first album, recorded in the wake of a near-fatal car accident and released without much support, changed the face of hip-hop and brought the iron fortress of 90's gangster rap toppling down. His fourth album, written after the death of his mother (West personally blames himself for her death, following complications from plastic surgery she would never have gotten if not for the West family's newfound fame and fortune) wasn't well received at the time, but it's heartfelt melodies and minimalism once again wiped the slate clean and was the springboard upon which Drake and Kid Cudi gained attention. His fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, was named album of the century by Pitchfork. And deservedly so.

West manages to come across as brash, unapologetic, and an unpredictable bomb of energy that thrashes around wildly on stage and shouts at the audience because he knows how big he is. If that isn't rock and roll, what is?

Glastonbury, a secret preserve of the middle-class, is an ageing festival. More musicians aged 70+ performed there this year than ever before, a trend that's been rising since the festival's beginning. Why are we turning Glastonbury into a pale, nostalgia-fuelled blur, blotting out the world with rose-tinted memories of the good ol' days, when we can puncture it with moments of modernity and invention?

You're welcome to believe Kanye West is the worst thing ever. But Kanye West does not take drugs and never glorifies them. Kanye West is a doting father, and married the woman of his dreams. Kanye West has never been convicted of sex with a minor, or of buying child pornography. Kanye West has never ordered a hit on anyone. Kanye West has donated hundreds of thousands to charity. I'm welcome to believe you're desperate to avoid the fact that the world's biggest musical star isn't a white face with a friendly smile. Thank God.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

On FIFA's Gender War

The internet's reaction to Women's teams being playable in FIFA 16 has been an indegestible cacophony of hottakes. Please stop.

Let's take a second, firstly, to congratulate EA Sports on a job well done. They haven't just made a historic step for the series, they've done it properly. A whole new set of likenesses and animations have been made for the women's teams, meaning they'll represent their sport as realistically as the male counterparts. With the Women's World Cup currently taking place, there was no better time to make the leap, and you'd have to take a deep dive into the 12-and-under section of Twitter to find someone that thinks their inclusion is a bad thing in of itself.

There's some critics who think things haven't gone far enough, however, and their critiques range from very valid to baffling. Polygon's Owen S. Good points out that, whilst the inclusion of 12 top female teams is great, the feature parity with the men's teams is lacking. No career mode, World Cup or Ultimate Team. All of these features will certainly make their way into the title over the next few years, drip-fed - just as they were in the men's game - but pressure from critics can only push EA to work harder on these features to give us more game for our money next year. It's a win-win.

Where Good, and where I get off this bus, is Anita Sarkeesian's assertion that the women's teams should be mixed with the men's. Whether it's women v men, or women and men in the same XI, I can't support that at all.

I think Anita's own viewpoint, as a gaming critic rather than a sports expert, creates a skewed logic. She argues that as a videogame, FIFA has the artistic licence to be daring and do it first, before the real world. It's the same argument made when The Witcher 3 didn't include many non-white people. "Who cares if it's a Slavic game, made by Slavic people and set in a Slavic land? It's a videogame, if you can put dragons in Poland, you can put black people there too!" It's an argument that is at least viable for The Witcher, but FIFA isn't fantasy. It's a licenced simulation of the real world, and that comes with all the real-world limitations.

First, there's the realistic business dealings that happen before a game is even started to consider. The legal implications of FIFA licencing are colossal. You know how sometimes licenced cars can't be shown damaged in racing games? Imagine that, applied to a contact sport with 22 individuals, two teams and a league all being represented for the masses. It's not a matter of simply waving a wand to set up a friendly match between women and men in FIFA.

I also don't think it's helpful to the feminist cause to allow women v men matches. If you talk to fans of women's football, you'll realise the most common criticisms of the women's game all stem from it being endlessly compared to the elite men's game. Saying that the overwhelming majority of women's professionals aren't as good as male professionals might be true - there are reports of women's national teams being beaten by professional men's U18 sides a-plenty. But it's not the point. The women that play professional football shouldn't have to be compared to the men. They're playing their own sport, in their own leagues. Analysis that focuses a comparison on something entirely outside of the women's game results in absolutely no insight.

Allowing women to play men in FIFA would force this ugly critique into the limelight. Why give creedence to such an invalid argument? Why promote a gender war that cannot possibly advance the quality or reputation of the women's game? There's no way to fairly do it without ignoring the reality which the game explicitly aims to simulate.

You'd be forcing EA to make explicit comparisons in their player statistics too, as anyone that's seen a FIFA team select screen will know. What good would it do to see the women's teams lounging on one-and-a-half stars, mixed in with Real Madrid and Bayern? Segregating them would allow the women's teams their own scale of statistics, where a woman's team can be rated equally highly as Bayern in their own league. This is a better promotion of quality in women's football, and would be a far more encouraging way to get more girls into the sport. Give women their own space to improve on their own merits.