Sunday, 17 August 2008

Some epic blogging from across the sea

It's surprisingly easy to get the news in Madeira. I know I shouldn't be surprised - Funchal is a popular tourist spot on an island off the coast of Portugal, not a windswept rock in the middle of a cultural black hole - but given that all I'd be able to understand in a Portuguese paper would be 'Obrigado' and 'Cristiano Ronaldo', and considering how difficult it can be to get foreign-language papers in the UK, I find myself delerious with delight at seeing an English newspaper, even if it is The Mail.

Truth is, there's a newsagent's on practically every corner offering an impressive range of English rags. They're printed in Europe and imported as soon as they can be, generally being ready to buy around lunchtime. They're also quite expensive: a Guardian costs me €3.90 (about £3.25), which I personally think is a bit cheeky. Still, it's worth it to keep up-to-date and free hotel internet access makes a happy Huw.

And, you may be asking, why aren't I off enjoying my holiday instead of lying in the sun beside a rooftop swimming pool, admiring a spectacular view, drinking a cool beer and writing what I think about the world?

Well, I'm committed, 'tis all.

(So committed, in fact, that I got a bit carried away with these stories and they turned from blog posts into epic blog posts into full-blown articles. Sorry about that.)

The price of progress
The appealing's Mutu-al
Flogging a dead horse (then rigorously washing my hands)

The price of progress

So, A-Level results time once again. And once again, it's a record-breaking year, with the pass rate topping 97% for the first time and more As being awarded than ever before.

Shit! Disaster! Continuing success! A-Levels must be getting easier. If seven-year-old twins can get a D in an AS-Level Maths paper, how hard can it be? Void the results. Better still, scrap the entire system. When one in four results are As and one in ten pupils are getting three of them – and when my old school comes first in the national league tables (schwing!) – something must be wrong. Right?

Or maybe – just maybe – schools are getting better, pupils are getting cleverer and those twins are just geniii. Maybe this reaction to A-Level results is the wrong kind of euphoria. I know it's terribly British to fail and everything, but when the Government is discussing plans to reduce the number of happy, successful pupils, it makes you wonder what they want from them.

To be fair, some changes in the A-Level system may be required. 5000 pupils who went on to get three As were turned away by Oxford last year, and that number is expected to have increased this year. Pupils are doing so well that it is becoming harder to distinguish the best of the best. But that's not their fault, and I resent the automatically negative response towards them, as if they have chosen an easier ride; as if they have taken advantage of the system; as if they have cheated in some way. No, their results are not meaningless. Regardless of how easy to attain good results may or may not be, most pupils have worked bloody hard for them and we can't – or shouldn't – take that away from them.

But while hard-working, intelligent pupils are missing out on university places because others are doing just as well (again, no one's fault), Something Must Be Done – but to help them out, not set them back. There needs to be a better way of setting apart pupils with similar results, even if that does mean more work for them. It's fairer on them in the long run.

So what's to be done? Here are a few suggestions off the top of my head, and off the tops of the heads of others (i.e. I've stolen them from existing plans).

--- Drop General Studies. It's pointless, nobody takes it seriously (least of all universities) and even if you don't revise for it, it takes up lesson time and exam period time that could be spent revising for real subjects.

--- Encourage universities to demand four A-Levels from a student instead of three. More results = a greater chance of differentiation. I'm not sure about this one, because although there's room in a student's timetable for a fourth subject (seeing as most drop one after AS-Level) it would increase workload and resultant stress to potentially harmful levels. Admittedly this would separate the men from the boys – statistically, the girls would probably be fine – but three A-Levels are stressful enough (in fact, pupils' stress levels are apparently higher than ever before). Still, one to think about.

--- One Government plan is a university-style dissertation to be taken alongside A-Levels, in the form of an extended project. I think this would be good. It's more suited to Higher Education, helping students to prepare for the intellectual rigours of university and helping universities to gauge who the more promising applicants are. It would also encourage A-Level pupils to show a bit of initiative, accustomed as they are to the highly specific narrow-field approach to learning, with practice papers and mark schemes telling them exactly what to write (though plans are afoot to change this). A pilot of the dissertation scheme saw pupils discussing global warming and voting ages (danger: General Studies!) but another approach could be to incorporate the longer study into a subject. This would avoid too much added workload (see above), though the current plans are for the projects to be worth half an A-Level, not a whole one.

--- Introduce an A* grade. This is probably going to happen in 2010 and provided it's hard enough to get one, it should help significantly. Incredibly, some big universities have said they'll ignore the A* system because it will favour better-prepared, better-educated students from more affluent areas. What the hell?

--- Interview more students. Whatever happened to the university interview anyway? If you have two or more students of precisely the same academic calibre, it only makes sense to compare their performances in an interview.

--- Leave the International Baccalaureate well alone. It's crap. Just say no, kids.

--- Most importantly, leave the poor sods alone. They've done what they were told, worked hard and achieved some good grades. What benefit is there in telling them they're worthless?

The appealing's Mutu-al

Sport often welcomes greed – just look at Michael Phelps' diet, guaranteed to get kids begging their parents for the right to eat handfuls of crap all day – but Chelsea FC really rolls out the red carpet. That's the common perception, anyway, and it's hard not to agree when the club tries to fine an individual nearly £14 million for an indiscretion four years previously.

And, to the probable indifference of Roman '£12 billion' Abramovic, it has succeeded. Adrian Mutu will have to pay the London club £13.8 million in damages (depending which paper he reads – some reckon it's actually £13.68 million). Mutu, now at Fiorentina, was a bit of a scamp in his Chelsea days and in October 2004 was caught red-handed and white-nosed chin-deep in trough full of cocaine. All right, that's a slight exaggeration: he tested positive for cocaine after Chelsea got suspicious he was up to something, having put in some lacklustre training performances (not surprising: if you're being paid five-figure sums of money a week for doing very little you should at least look like you give a shit). Mutu was sacked by the club, banned from football for seven months and had to pay a £20,000 fine. Such is the price of coke these days.

And now Chelsea want £13.8 million from him in compensation. For what, though? What did Chelsea suffer as a result of Mutu's shenanigans that justifies demanding that amount of money from him?

Reputation is the first thing to spring to mind. Employing cocaine junkies isn't exactly keeping up appearances. But when you consider they're not exactly beloved by all anyway, how much did Chelsea's reputation really suffer from the bust? Not much. Not at all, really. Mutu got the flak, and rightly so. The PFA (Professional Footballers' Association) accused Chelsea of failing in its “duty of care” towards their players in sacking Mutu; after all, he'd committed himself to rehab and was having a difficult time of it, what with his wife and kids having left him (the reason he'd fallen into drugs in the first place). But Chelsea received almost universal support for their decision, because it made professional sense – they bought Mutu to play football and he got himself banned from the game for seven months. It doesn't matter that he would have spent most of that time on the bench. Harsh as it was, Chelsea made the right decision, and people knew it. And how cares what the PFA thinks anyway?

The real issue, of course, is that Chelsea want their money back. They feel a bit short-changed from the £15.8 million they gave Parma for Mutu's services (in 2003!), and want the player to reimburse them. But, come on, guys...really? Water under the bridge, man, water under Stamford Bridge. Besides, in the world of professional football faulty purchases don't have a warranty. You can't seek compensation for a signing that went awry. If you could, you'd think Chelsea would want some money back from the £10 million they paid for Chris '28 appearances, 1 goal' Sutton in 1999.

What it comes down to is that Chelsea want Mutu to pay for showing them up. That's pretty unreasonable in my eyes – and £13.8 million? That's just plain greedy (especially when you consider it was originally £9.6 million and Chelsea appealed to make it more).

Mutu is expected to appeal. Damn right. He's got himself clean – time to wipe the slate clean as well.

Flogging a dead horse (then rigorously washing my hands)


An article I wrote on obsessive-compulsive disorder that some of you may have read recently got snapped up by that excellent purveyor of high-quality journalism The Guardian and was in G2 last Monday (the 11th). Obviously I´m very proud, and not above plugging it wherever possible. But given that this blog is me commenting on what I read in the papers, I thought I'd share my views.

On the whole, the piece was fairly well-written and not too painful to read, but I would have appreciated more information on OCD rather than one individual's relatively minor battle with it. This, I understand, was in its original publication in Cardiff University's award-winning newspaper gair rhydd, but giving the readers what they want demanded a more personal approach, I hear. Never mind - it was interesting to read about the chap's issues. He clearly needs to get out more.

Not sure about the photo, either.