Friday, 17 June 2016

The next chapter: Higher Education

Over the past few years I have had the privilege of working as a freelance journalist, covering issues which I care about - from miscarriages of justice to disability rights - for numerous publications. I have thoroughly enjoyed this experience and have learned a great deal from researching social issues and interviewing fascinating people. Unfortunately, during the last few months I have been unable to write as much as I would have liked, owing to commitments related to a career transition.

Through my writing I have become increasingly interested in labour issues, including youth unemployment, graduate prospects, worker instability, the growth of freelancing and self-employment. This interest has led me to pursue a second career as a consultant, helping students in higher education to navigate the challenging and often confusing world of work as they plan their future careers.

I recently completed my training towards a professional guidance qualification and have now been offered an exciting opportunity to work at the University of Leeds careers centre, which I have accepted. This means that I will have less time to dedicate to journalism work. However, I fully intend to continue writing about the subjects that matter the most to me and hope that the experience of working within higher education will give me a valuable insight into many of the issues I have taken an interest in as a journalist.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Has gambling got out of control?

(Originally published by the Guardian)

Photo by Ralf Roletschek/ Wikimedia Commons
Most people are able to place a small bet once in a while without suffering any real consequences beyond losing a tenner. However, for a small minority, gambling can become a serious addiction with the power to destroy lives. 

In the UK, it’s estimated that around 350,000 people suffer from an addiction to gambling – recently classified as a disorder in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V) – and those numbers are growing.

Last week the Guardian hosted a debate in collaboration with Discuss, where two expert speakers debated whether or not gambling is now out of control. Here’s what they thought:

If members of the audience were in any doubt about the potential for gambling to cause harm, few remained unconvinced after hearing the first speaker, Paul Buck, recount his personal story. Buck who is the founder of EPIC, a problem gambling consultancy, began his career in retail shortly after graduating from university.

After becoming a financial services adviser for a bank in 2001, he quickly rose the ranks to forge a successful and lucrative career. “Looking in from the outside you’ve got the perfect career and family going on…the world of Paul Buck looked quite good from afar.”

Yet unbeknownst to his friends and family, Buck had a pathological gambling disorder; between 2003 and 2011 he lost a staggering £1.3million. “I was getting up at 2am and putting £40,000 on Brazilian football matches…that’s how far the addiction had gone,” he explained.

Buck remained in denial about his problem until 2011, when he came across a newspaper article which discussed gambling addiction. The article described his condition perfectly, and the magnitude of his addiction suddenly hit him. Shortly after his epiphany, he went into work and attempted suicide: 

“We held a meeting in the morning and that lunchtime, something took over me…I went to the top of building and I tried to hang myself with my tie. That’s how low it got. That’s how serious a problem gambling can be.”

Buck was prosecuted and served two years in prison for swindling money from the bank he worked for to fund his gambling problem. His story may sound extreme, yet he insists it is not as rare as people might think. In 2010 a national survey concluded there were 3.5million people at risk of developing a gambling addiction in the UK.

“If there were 3.5 million at risk of becoming addicted in 2010, and since then we’ve had 1400% more TV adverts, loads and loads of sport affiliation, greater number of betting shops…it is realistic to think that none of those people who were at risk didn’t become gambling addicts?” he asked.

Wanda Goldwag, chair of the self-regulatory body Senet Group which promotes responsible gambling standards, began by stressing that she did not wish to deny gambling has become a serious problem for a minority of people. However, she argued that to say gambling is out of control is misleading since the vast majority of people are still able to enjoy the odd flutter without developing a problem:

“93% of people are OK and that’s the issue for me. So I don’t think gambling is out of control, I think there are some challenges and they need to be addressed…there is a certain number of people for whom this becomes a disaster and the industry has got to take that very, very seriously.”

Goldwag insisted that the gambling industry is already trying to resolve the problems faced by a significant minority. To illustrate her point she outlined Senet’s three broad strategies to attempt to regulate and improve company behaviour:

“We’re trying to make the industry socially responsible, we are creating codes of behaviour and we’re also trying to help the government and regulators get this right. I actually think it’s in the long term interests of everybody - including people who work in gambling companies to take this seriously and get social responsibility right.”

But what might this mean in practical terms? Goldwag said she was particularly concerned about young people being exposed to large numbers of intense betting adverts. In response the Senet Group convinced gambling companies to sign up voluntarily to a policy of removing pre-watershed adverts for types of betting which might be particularly problematic, such as ‘free betting.’

“What that means is that companies who are members of the Senet Group volunteered to not do some advertising which all of their rivals were doing and they did that at quite a large commercial loss. But they did it because they absolutely understood that you don’t want children seeing these very high intense adverts before the 9pm watershed.”

However, one member of the audience suggested these measures might be inadequate and that gambling has become normalised as part of youth culture. 

“What’s interesting listening to my son and his friends talk, at that age I didn’t talk about gambling - nobody did. Why do people of 11-15 talk about bets and odds and spread bets and all these things I still don’t understand?”

Goldwag conceded that the industry faces numerous challenges in facing up to changes in technology which mean betting sites are easily available to young people online.

“I’m worried about online more than anything else. If it’s two in the morning and you’re on your own, absolutely nobody is controlling you. That’s why the next set of campaigns we’re doing are centred around online.”

Despite her best efforts, however, Goldwag’s attempts to persuade the audience that the betting industry is doing enough to regulate its own behaviour fell short. A poll at the end of the debate found the majority of the audience were convinced by the force of Buck’s personal account, with over 50% voting in favour of the motion: gambling is out of control. 

Friday, 4 December 2015

Syria debate proves critical thinking should be taught in schools

(Originally published by New Internationalist)

The city of Raqqa in Syria. Photo by Wikimedia Commons
The level of debate around whether Britain should bomb Syria demonstrates why critical thinking should become a compulsory subject for children in British schools. To give an example, if someone puts forward the argument: "Bombing Syria will strengthen, not weaken, ISIS and make things worse for all of us", the standard reply: "so what are you proposing; that we just do nothing?" is not a logically valid counter-argument.

The question of whether we should bomb Syria or whether bombing will be counter-productive is entirely separate from the question of whether or not there are other policies, that do not involve bombing, which could have a positive effect. The onus is on those defending bombing to demonstrate that their policy is likely to have positive, rather than negative, consequences. Merely asking their opponent what they would do instead adds nothing to their argument whatsoever. 

This is understood in almost every other sphere of life outside of politics. If you remain unconvinced, try the following thought experiment: If you are ill and I prescribe you some medicine, the onus is on me to justify why I am confident my remedy will make you better, rather than worse. If you have good reason to believe the remedy I am prescribing you is actually poisonous, and will therefore make you worse, and when challenged I fail to provide any evidence to relieve your suspicions, does it help my case to exclaim: "well what else are you planning to take other than the poison I've prescribed!?" 

Similar tactics are frequently used by religious people debating atheists. The conversation tends to go like this:

Atheist (A): "I do not believe life is the product of intelligent design since there is no evidence to suggest this is the case."

Religious person (R): "Well if god didn't create life, then how did the first life forms come into existence?"

A: "Scientists are working on this problem. There are a number of plausible theories but we are not yet certain..."

R: "Aha! You don't have a definite alternative! Therefore you are wrong and god must have created life."

Mainstream political discourse is riddled with this kind of muddled thinking. One solution to this would be to promote critical thinking in education as a skill of equal importance to numeracy and literacy. Encouraging children to engage critically with world affairs from an early age would certainly do no harm. Unfortunately the few (mostly private) schools which do teach critical thinking courses basically teach their students to pass an IQ test, full of puzzles grounded in mathematical logic with no application to the real world. 

In my critical thinking course pupils would learn about, debate and discuss world affairs freely - with minimal input from a teacher other than to correct muddled thinking, flawed logic and factually incorrect statements. Attendance would be compulsory but learning would not be assessed - an alien concept to many policy makers. 

The chances of anything of the sort every being implemented into the national curriculum are non-existent of course, since it wouldn't profit those in charge of education policy to have a nation of razor sharp minds scrutinising their record. But there's no harm in dreaming. 

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Is education failing our economy?

(Originally published by the Guardian)


In recent years, education debates have largely centred on disputes between teachers’ unions and the government. While teachers complain they are overworked and under resourced, ruling politicians – such as the former education minister Michael Gove – insist on the need for greater “academic rigour” in the classroom to ensure pupils can compete in the global marketplace.

Yet beyond the rhetoric, grave doubts remain over the education system’s competence. According to a recent study by the British Chambers of Commerce, two-thirds of companies believe secondary schools are failing to prepare pupils for the working world. At a Guardian Live/Discuss event held in Manchester Central Library four expert panellists debated for and against the motion: Education is failing our economy.

First to speak for the motion was Guardian Education writer Melissa Benn who told the audience that successive governments have refused to invest sufficient funds in careers advice and apprenticeships, thereby failing to harness the potential of poorer students.

Benn also criticised the national curriculum for being “overregulated” and “narrow”, comparing underperforming state schools to elite public schools which may owe their success to adopting the opposite approach: “Eton does everything I would like state schools to do. It leaves its pupils alone; it puts enormous emphasis on creativity, sport and drama, on all the things that develop self-confidence. If you look at how state education has developed we have gone in the opposite direction.”

Despite her contention that state education is failing our economy, Benn challenged the assumption that education ought to be run solely for economic benefit. Instead she insisted that education is valuable as an end in itself and that pupils should not be presented with a false choice between classes designed to get them a job, and traditional academic subjects:

“Why does one have to go down the route of Latin, History, Geography … or go down the route of hairdressing or construction?” she said. “Why not be a philosopher and do a bit of plumbing?”

Arguing alongside Benn, educationalist Debra Kidd spoke of a worrying disconnect between the government’s rhetoric and the outcome of their policies. Last year education secretary, Nicky Morgan, expressed her concerns that an overemphasis on the arts is holding back secondary school pupils from fulfilling their career potential.

However, according to Kidd this ignores the fact that the creative industries have grown at a faster rate than almost any other sector since the recession, suggesting that arts subjects have an important role to play in preparing pupils for the world of work: “Yes education is failing our economy. It’s failing it because it doesn’t value the very subjects that children need to succeed to go on in life,” she said.

Kidd added that the government’s strong emphasis on testing pupils’ abilities with endless exams is having a detrimental effect on the economy: “What all companies seem to be in agreement about is that what we need are creative, confident, risk takers. Children who are not afraid to make mistakes, who are prepared to pick themselves up when they do fail and carry on,” she said. “How on earth are we going to produce children of that capacity when we give them one shot at passing exams, when we move to a fully linear system where if you fail you are dumb
?”

Arguing against the motion Alun Francis, chief executive of Oldham College, contended that while it is impossible to design an education system to perfectly match the needs of an ever changing economy, the shift towards a knowledge-based curriculum prioritising core academic subjects has helped equip pupils with some of the skills they need to compete in the labour market. “I think a knowledge-based curriculum is very important because powerful knowledge is the thing that allows people to live economically and politically much more free lives.”

Francis conceded that there was room for improvement in several areas, calling for more emphasis on vocational training within schools rather than just focusing on core academic subjects and agreeing with Kidd that school testing has gone too far: “Our system is overregulated, it manages performance not learning, it’s obsessed with league tables … the policy is part of the problem and we need a policy that is about learning not performance,” he argued.

Nick Brent, co-director of Tutor Trust, agreed there have been positive changes in recent years, highlighting a greater emphasis on numeracy and literacy in the curriculum as well as an increasing number of state school pupils going on to university. However, Brent diverged slightly from Francis when he praised the government’s focus on assessing academic performance – with regular Ofsted inspections and league tables – which he argued are important to ensure education standards remain high.

“It’s good that we have things like league tables. Having more rigour in the system is really important and a good thing and, frankly, before there was more rigour in the system it was failing a lot of kids and a lot of employers. But it was mainly failing poor kids and from a social justice perspective that is wrong.”

Brent insisted that schools which have embraced academic rigour often perform well, citing the example ofParry Beeches Academy, a Birmingham free school, where 94% of pupils achieved the government benchmark of 5 A*-C GCSEs last year.

“Some schools have shown that even in very tough urban areas with hundreds of kids from challenging backgrounds they can still get excellent education results.”

However, his faith in the system was challenged towards the end of the debate by a 15-year-old pupil whose firsthand account of school life drew warm applause from the audience.

“You can go to any class in this country and ask them an exam question and you will get the exact same answer from every single student,” she said, “We’re not learning we’re memorising our mark scheme … we don’t know things we memorise things.”

A poll at the end of the event confirmed that many in the audience sympathised with her experience, with a large majority voting to agree that education is failing our economy.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Guardian Live: should we say yes to nuclear power?

Originally published by the Guardian)

Last month George Osborne backed a deal with China to build a new £24bn nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset. The government claims the new plant will be relied on to deliver 7% of the UK’s electricity while providing a low cost, low carbon alternative to fossil fuels. 

Photo by Stefan Kuhn/ Wikimedia Commons. 
But not everyone agrees, with critics arguing the plants will be expensive to build and questioning whether nuclear energy represents a safe, clean and cost-effective energy future. 

On Thursday the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester played host to a public debate as part of the Manchester Science Festival in which four expert panellists debated the motion: Nuclear power, yes please. These were some of their thoughts:

Four reasons why nuclear is the answer:

Britain has led the way in developing nuclear technology
Dr Fiona Rayment, director of Fuel Cycle Solutions, argued that Britain should be proud of its leading role in developing nuclear technology since the first generation of reactors were introduced in the 1950s and 60s. “We’re actually at a stage where six decades on we’re at the third generation of nuclear reactors across the world and the UK has led the way in a lot of that reactor technology” she enthused. “…I actually believe that nuclear power is a reliable, secure and clean technology for the current and the future.”

Energy demands are set to increase
With the majority of the UK’s energy still produced with fossil fuels, the government faces big challenges if it is to cut carbon emissions whilst continuing to meet growing energy demands in the future. “When you think about the fact that energy includes electricity, heat and transport…some projections say that by 2050 that [demand] is going to increase by about 3-fold,” said Dr Rayment. Professor of Radiochemistry, Francis Livens agreed: “You need vastly more energy than we have and you don’t have that many ways of getting large amounts of energy reliably, on tap in quantity.”

More reliable and efficient than renewables
Livens stressed that although he was not uncritical of nuclear technology, it was the “least worst option” under the circumstances: “There are renewables, certainly, but you have big questions about their reliability and ability to deliver huge quantities of energy that would be implied by giving much more energy to the majority of the world.” Rayment concurred: “We have to put things in context. You have to have 1000 windmills to actually be equivalent to one nuclear power plant,” she told the audience.

Britain’s nuclear regulation is second to none
Although the Nuclear industry has been blighted by a history of disasters, such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, the panellists in favour of the motion reassured the audience that Britain has a world leading reputation when it comes to the regulating the industry. “With any industry we need to have the right level of regulation and safety is of upmost importance. Our regulatory body in the UK is highly regarded throughout the world.

And four reasons why it’s not…

Hinkley Point deal is prohibitively expensive
Speaking against the motion the Guardian’s environment editor, John Vidal, described the Chinese project at Hinkley Point a “rotten deal” pointing out that no completion date has yet been declared and that electricity produced by the plant is likely to be expensive. “This is the most expensive project [of its kind] that Britain has ever approached…The only people who can afford it are the Chinese government and the French government. We can’t afford it so we have to go elsewhere,” he said.

Nuclear waste
In 1980 Manchester became the first city to become a ‘nuclear free zone’ following a resolution passed by the council which banned the storage of nuclear waste in the area. Local Labour councillor Grace Fletcher-Hackwood warned the audience that there is no adequate way of getting rid of nuclear waste once it’s been produced. Responding to whether nuclear should form part of Britain’s future energy mix she replied: “When no policy currently exists for the waste that has been produced over the last 60 years you have to wonder whether we shouldn’t first sort out our nuclear past.

Renewable technology has come on in leaps and bounds
When it comes to renewables, the UK is lagging behind European competitors such as Germany which is phasing out its nuclear reactors and where renewables already produce nearly 30% of electricity supply. Vidal argued that while renewable energy may have been in its infancy 10 years ago, today the sector is witnessing a technological revolution: “Battery technologies are changing and may hold the future for storage which is fantastically exciting. Wind energy is now cheaper than all other sources put together,” he explained, “If just one tenth of the research money which is put into nuclear were put into renewable energy we know perfectly well we would have a different world.”

Chernobyl-style disasters a real danger
Over several decades there have been dozens of serious accidents at nuclear power stations around the world. According to a recently published peer reviewed statistical analysis of global nuclear accidents there is a 50:50 chance we will see another Chernobyl incident within the next 50 years. “China is building 400 new nuclear reactors. More than 200 of these are in seismically dangerous areas. Most of these are facing the sea and with sea levels rising we know what’s going to happen,” warned Vidal. 

Friday, 2 October 2015

Guardian Live: will the market save us?

(Originally published by the Guardian)

Milton Friedman: advocate of free market economics
The late Nobel Prize winning economist, Milton Friedman, once described free market capitalism as “the most effective system we have discovered to enable people who hate one another to deal with one another and help one another.”  Yet ever since the 2008 financial crash this understanding has come in for intense criticism from those who believe that unregulated markets are the cause of - rather than the solution to - many of society’s problems.

So, can we rely on markets to save us? At the People’s History Museum in Manchester Steve Davies, Education director of the Institute of Economic Affairs went head to head with Catriona Watson, founder of the Post-crash economics society at the University of Manchester, in front of an engaging audience.

Davies began by arguing that the financial crisis was an entirely foreseeable event which, far from expose the failure of unregulated markets, arose out of a misunderstanding of how markets ought to work:

“What lay behind it was a belief that the world was more controllable, more predictable than it actually is,” he explained. “What policy makers didn’t understand was that you’re dealing with a world of radical uncertainty in which you ultimately have to have a system based on profit and loss. That’s what capitalism is based on.”

The problem, according to Davies, was that too many people believed any losses they incurred from poor investments would be subsidised by the tax payer. This led to reckless investments which ultimately caused the global financial crisis. Furthermore, if market principles had been followed, governments would have done what Iceland did and allow financial institutions to go bust.  “A tough choice,” he admitted, “but the right one because once it’s done we can get over the bad investment caused by the artificial boom.”

Whilst the short term effects would have been disastrous for ordinary people with savings in bankrupt banks, longer term the void would have been filled by another central tenet of Davies’s market ideology: innovation. “What drives market economies is innovation and what we’re seeing right now is an unprecedented wave in innovation in the way commerce is organised through things like sharing economies such as Air BnB.”

Cariona Watson wasn’t convinced. Watson - who has campaigned against rigid economics curriculums at UK universities - argued that the profit-driven higher education sector provides as good an example as any of the limitations of markets:

“In order to market education you need to turn it into a commodity. It’s the market mechanism of minimising marginal costs for maximum gain for the university as a business rather than looking at how we’re going to give these students a good education,” she explained.

According to Watson, market pressures mean university economics departments are failing to create well rounded students who are able to engage with related subjects, such as politics and social sciences. Consequently, students who graduate in subjects like economics are often ill equipped to deal with global problems such as the 2008 financial crisis.

Asked by an audience member whether the market could ever be used to create a better society, Watson was deeply sceptical:

“People and institutions need to use markets to build a society where appropriate but the market won’t do it by itself. Markets don’t have an aim they respond to incentives and behaviour. It’s not a conscious thing that can achieve things like building a fairer society; it’s institutions and people who will do that.”

Another member asked the panel about social enterprises which, according to one study, are growing faster than mainstream businesses by responding to the ethical demands of consumers: “Is that the market fixing itself and becoming more ethical?”

“Yes, quite possibly,” Davies replied, “Entrepreneurs and people in the business world are going to respond to incentives and if there’s demand for ethical products they’ll do that. Also the change in technology is making it much easier to fund, start and organise alternative business models.”

Yet despite his unbridled positivity, Davies conceded one snag. While markets are efficient drivers of economic growth, they are less good at establishing social justice and equality. “Very often in society you need to make a choice between greater efficiency and output on the one hand and some principle of equity on the other. What you’ve got to realise if that there is a trade-off. Too many people think they can have their cake and eat it.”

For many in the audience this trade off was too much to digest. A straw poll following the debate found 70% disagreed with the motion with only 30% leaving the hall convinced that markets can save us.