Opening Minds through Shakespeare

November 16, 2012 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

This, believe it or not, is a photograph of a year seven pupil improvising Romeo and Juliet. Even more surprising is that this pupil was one of a group that started this Shakespeare workshop only a few hours earlier professing that they either knew nothing about Shakespeare or that what they did know of him was “boring”.

This was how my day began when I visited Windsor school in Germany last week as part of a partnership project between the RSA and SCE (Service Children’s Education). The aim of the partnership is to support SCE as two of its schools in JHQ Rheindahlen are due to close along with the Garrison. The focus at Windsor school is to teach the students about Shakespeare whilst also helping them to develop competences from the RSA’s Opening Minds framework which they can call upon during this challenging time and in their future lives.

The pupils’ initial reaction to a day of Shakespeare reminded me of the way in which I and many of my peers greeted Shakespeare learning at school. However, the workshop that followed could not have been more different. After watching the Globe’s promotional video Stand Up For Shakespeare, in which celebrities, such as Judi Dench, explain that Shakespeare is to be acted and not read, we followed their cue and began improvising scenes before even glancing at a script.

Following the truly inspirational facilitation of our lead partner, SCE’s Performing Arts Consultant Joy Harris, the students were led through a number of exercises that helped them to break through Shakespeare’s intimidating language and recognise emotions and scenarios that are common to all people of all ages and times: children and adults, Tudor subjects and modern day citizens. By mid-morning the students were leaping around the room, brandishing imaginary knives and reciting lines from the play, unscripted.

With the children’s excitement and imaginations ignited, my role – to introduce competences such as ‘risk taking’ and ‘feelings and reactions’ – was made much simpler. The children were fully engaged and able to relate the discussion to a present experience. They were, for example, able to put themselves in Juliet’s shoes and explore the risks that she took in marrying Romeo and taking the poison, and to debate whether her actions were admirable or plain foolish. Through the prism of the play and an exploration of the motives and emotions of the characters, they were able to develop a deeper understanding of the competences.

All of this is even more astonishing when you consider the uncertainty that these children face. Apart from the fact that they will not be in that school next September, many do not know much else about what the next year holds. It is hard to imagine the implications this has for them personally, as well as for engagement and morale within the classroom. A number of children will not be able to see the project to completion and, for one pupil, this was their last day in the school. Despite this, every child actively participated and the staff and the school’s Head fully supported the unique experience that they were able to gain that day.

I also learned a lot from the visit – and not just that Shakespeare is not as boring as I had remembered. The whole experience was an extremely powerful demonstration of how pupils become more engaged in learning if they are doing rather than just listening. This approach may seem more easily applicable to drama than other subjects, such as Maths, but maybe it is this pigeon-holing that we need to break away from.

As I approach the end of what is sadly my last day at the RSA (as I will be moving to a new role at Cubitt), my visit to Windsor has also helped me to reflect on the amazing experiences that I have gained here and to think about how I will utilise them in my next role. Perhaps, though, it will be twenty years down the line that I will draw on something that I have learnt here, and the people that helped form that learning won’t have any idea of its application. In the face of what could easily be a sad and demoralising year, the teachers at SCE remain passionate about ensuring that their students access unique opportunities that they can reflect on and use in the year and years to come.

Performs inconsistently

February 3, 2012 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters, Social Brain 

If I had to define myself professionally, I’d say that more than anything else, I’m an educationalist. I have my PhD supervisor to thank for pointing it out to me – before he told me as much, I was a bit adrift in terms of knowing how to explain my status.

So, although I work on the Social Brain project at the RSA, my heart really lies in the field of education. In light of this, yesterday’s triumphant event, which saw Becky Francis discuss her excellent report on Satisfactory Schools with Sir Michael Wilshaw, was a great thing to witness.

At the same time as feeling very pleased that such an excellent piece of work has been conducted by my colleagues at RSA, and that it has led to a powerful shift in rhetoric on the part of Ofsted, I also felt kind of sad on account of the small battle that has been lost.

Becky’s report recommended that ‘satisfactory’ schools be recategorised as ‘performing inconsistently’. Ofsted responded positively to this, but didn’t embrace it fully, instead opting to describe these schools as ‘requiring improvement’.

For me, the most interesting part of yesterday’s discussion between Becky and Michael was around this issue of semantics. Becky pointed out that many schools graded as ‘satisfactory’ often have good or even outstanding features in certain departments or across specific domains. Although overall, ‘satisfactory’ schools are patently not good enough, there’s more often than not a lot of good work going on within them.

Those squeezed schools in the middle are very often up against the wall, poorly resourced, with over-stressed and undervalued leaders doing their best against the odds. No wonder that individual performance is inconsistent. But, if you’re an individual working in that sort of culture, and you’re good at your job, performing outstandingly on behalf of your pupils, how much more galling that your efforts are not recognised.

like every organisation the world over, even Ofsted performs inconsistently

And, anyway, (for fear of revealing my terrible weakness for pedantry) surely every single school in the country can only really accurately be described as performing inconsistently. Even Eton lets down its pupils in just as many ways as it serves them. Education should not primarily be about exam results, or the ability to bamboozle those less articulate than oneself. It should be focused on enabling everyone, no matter what their background, to grow into the best version of themselves. The skills required in the 21st Century are different to those that were important even a generation ago. Not everyone needs to be numerate (in the old sense) in order to be a fully functioning member of society. But, I think everyone does need to have as much capacity for empathy, for solidarity, and for coping with change as they can muster.

So, although Becky’s report and the impact it has already made are a triumph for our education system, I’m disappointed that the accuracy of her categorisation has not been fully taken up. The nuance it conveys is precisely the kind of nuance that our society needs to grow its capacity to appreciate if we are to survive the 21st century. But, I suppose, like every organisation the world over, even Ofsted performs inconsistently.

Why Stigma Has Had Its Day

January 17, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

In all honesty, I had never heard of The Society for Curious Thought until last week. It says it exists to foster curiosity and intellectual discovery in pursuit of a better future, which sounds good to me. On closer inspection, it turns out to host an eclectic and fascinating collection of articles and contributions covering arts, science, politics, personal experience, the environment and fiction.

As a result of my call-out last week to Fellows and others about mental health and employment, I was contacted by the Society’s Director, Simon Marriott FRSA, and asked to submit an article further exploring the issues I had written about. I was very pleased to be asked, and my piece, Why Stigma Has Had Its Day has just been published.

My article attempts to summarise an issue adjacent to those I raised last week in my two blog posts about mental health and employment – the problems associated with using ‘stigma’ as a conceptual framework for talking about the social exclusion of people with experience of mental illness.

Here’s a taster:

Discrimination and social exclusion are very real aspects of living with the experience of mental illness and the consequences can be grave: loss of opportunity in education, employment, housing and civic participation. Thirteen years ago, the disability rights campaigner, Liz Sayce did her best to change the way we deal with discrimination against people with experience of mental illness. She wrote an important article explaining why using the notion of ‘stigma’ to describe what is actually discrimination is in itself dangerously marginalising. Disappointingly, no one took very much notice, and these days, ‘stigma’ is still the primary conceptual apparatus used to describe what happens when people who have experienced mental illness are unfairly treated. 

Sayce’s key point was that the notion of stigma is problematic because it locates the problem within the person with the mental illness. This has the effect of individualising what is really a social problem. It amounts to a kind of victim blaming. Stigma (literally, mark of shame) carries with it the implication of there being something inherently discreditable about the person being stigmatised. Sayce argues that the ‘mark of shame’ should not be attached to the person with the mental health problem, but rather with the person who is behaving unjustly towards them.

It might be tempting to cast aside such issues as being merely semantic trifles. You might think that anti-stigma campaigners are fighting a good fight, and we all know what we mean when we talk about the stigma of mental illness. In fact, the reasons why discrimination against people with mental health problems continues, may well be partly down to the persistence of a damaging conceptual framework. Conceptual models carry enormous power. The implicit assumptions about where responsibility lies, or whose is the problem, determine to a large degree how we approach the issue as a society.

If you want to read more, please visit The Society for Curious Thought.

Networking by numbers

December 5, 2011 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Economy 

RSA Connected Communities has started a new project with Nathan of the MIT Center for Civic Media to create a new, cost-effective way to measure the social impact of public services and civic interventions and to allow people to see their own personal networks. We’re designing a mobile and tablet app for recording real-life social networks: your friends, families and contacts. The open source software we build will also be useful to journalists, ethnographers and anyone trying to make sense of rapidly changing social phenomena. Here I illustrate how we are currently recording this data, and why I think it is important that we change the way that we do it.

What is data?
Data is a rushed researcher putting together a survey to capture the full extent of a human life on paper. The scales are based on someone else’s testing. The newly combined scales are then re-tested on new people. Any newly invented questions can change as a result of piloting; the old questions – based on someone else’s testing – must remain constant. These newly tested combined scales – with the odd bit of cut and paste – are then recalibrated and re-launched.

A community researcher goes door to door. “Hello! My name is… “ Door shuts. “Hi! I’m… Some version of a person’s social network and social world is transferred from local person, to community researcher’s ear, to RSA paper survey. Interesting anecdotes and unusual answers are scribbled in the margins, for few paper-based-surveys have the space to fully annotate human complexity.

Back at the RSA HQ a data entry scribe enters these reams upon reams of human data. Comment boxes are full of the annotated scribbles, although some anecdotes are lost to time, bad weather and even worse handwriting. Data entry becomes data book; data book becomes social network; social network might become a Guardian Society supplement.

We have found that allowing people to see their own networks and understand them allows them to feel they can change them.

And so what? Your social network, your human network, is a map of you. And maps need to be used in the now, not in a year’s time when the roads have changed and bridges have been broken. The social app I am working on with Nathan from the MIT Center for Civic Media might allow us to do just that. It will be a means of researching somebody’s human networks and then playing it back to them, in real time.

Here in the RSA Connected Communities team – when not dealing with 4000 peoples’ worth of social networks and wellbeing, community health networks and the innovation networks of various councils – we are trying to help social network analysis become a real life tool. For this to happen it needs to make sense to people.

We already know that people with more diverse networks are healthier and happier. Our human networks help us to find work, with those with more diverse networks tending to have higher status and better paid jobs. We have found that allowing people to see their own networks and understand them allows them to feel they can change them. Poor networks are a real form of poverty: lack of mainstream social capital slows you down and closes off options.

You can paint me your social picture and I can ask “Does this look right, does this look like you?” before I join up the numbers

Through visualisation work to make network outputs more intelligible and the creation of network toolkits that hopefully make the subject more intuitive to people, we are trying to open up social network knowledge so it can be part of every individual’s personal toolkit. I really hope that the tool we are working on with Nathan will be a big part of this.

It will allow researcher and researched to really co-produce.You can paint me your social picture and I can ask “Does this look right, does this look like you?” before I join up the numbers. It will make the data better and it will do what the data protection act tried but failed to do: it will make you own your own data, because you can see, feel and change it.

This might become a way for people to check in on their own social networks every once in a while, or a tool that might measure your isolation and suggest a local reading group or walking club. I can imagine GPs using this kind of tool to help them socially prescribe local activities. Any organisation which acts with social networks – such as the NGO Tostan- could use this as a low-cost way of measuring the impact of their interventions.

Organisations which rely on interviewing broad sections of people to understand new social phenomena – such as Human Rights Watch or any news organisation worth its salt – could use the tool as a prompt in interviews, a means of recording data and a way on ensuring that they have actually managed to ask a diverse group of people and not just people who float in similar circles.

So over to you. These social networks are your human networks. And these human networks delimit that which is possible in your life. What does this tool need to do, if it is to be of real use?

If you focus on the average, you miss the majority

November 14, 2011 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

I picked a copy of the Guardian out of a (relatively clean) bin on Saturday, and immediately congratulated myself on the discovery. The highlight was the science column by Alok Jha which gives some mathematical insight into the ‘We are the 99%’ mantra of the Occupy movement.

The vast inequality of wealth is related to broader natural patterns, described as power laws. Power laws have been simplified by trainers and consultants and turned into the so-called ’80/20 rule’ which looks less and less like a rule the more you think about it, and more like a rough and ready heuristic to explain something much more complex and important, which is what it is.

Jha writes: “The maths underlying the 80/20 rule, known as the power law distribution, is found in many natural systems over which no single human has much influence. Its concentration of the extremes seems built into the fabric of complex systems that depend on numerous factors that continually change over time.

The simplest version says that 80% of your company sales will come from 20% of your customers; that 80% of the world’s internet traffic will go to 20% of the websites; 80% of the film industry’s money gets made by 20% of its movies; 80% of the usage of the English language involves just 20% of its words. You get the picture.”

I could dwell on this for hours, but need to get back to serious work. Suffice to say that power laws are important correctives to the human intuitions on what is ‘natural’.

As Jha puts it: “The average height of the people in a room (following the normal distribution) might tell you a lot about the spread heights of people in that room, but the average wealth of a country’s citizens (which follows a power law distribution) tells you little or nothing about how rich or poor most people are.”

Lack of aspiration, or smashing of dreams?

April 27, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

We are constantly told by practitioners and policymakers that it is working class kids’ ‘lack of aspiration’ that explains their low educational achievement. But actually, the evidence points in other directions. All the ‘lack of aspiration’ discourse does is blame working class families for inequalities entrenched in our education system.

Ever since the New Labour administration finally began to acknowledge the size and immovability of the social class gap for educational attainment, we’ve been subject to the buzzword of ‘aspiration’. Apparently, the key explanation for working class kids’ comparative underachievement in relation to their middle-class counterparts is a lack of aspiration to achieve – at school and in future occupations – on the part of these kids and (especially) their parents. This notion of a ‘lack of aspiration’ among working class families was continually bandied at seminars, in speeches, and in policy documents (it can be seen running through the recent ‘Extra Mile’ initiative, for example), and continues to be regularly mobilised. The recent White Paper echoes the New Labour White Paper of 2005 in its demand to ‘raise aspirations’ as a means to narrowing the socio-economic gap for attainment.

‘Aspiration’ is being systematically killed by a schooling system which informs young people that they are failing

However, this view at best reflects ignorance (and a deficit construction of those in poverty as to blame for their own plight), and at worst suggests a deceitful skewing of blame for educational inequality away from the educational system, and on to the individuals within it. In fact the evidence points away from young people’s ‘lack of aspirations’. Our own recent scoping work for the social justice programme at RSA Education confirms this too (we have consulted with working class sixth-formers on our social justice programme, and with FE students and practitioners in focus groups to scope our ‘Furthering Education’ initiative).

Young people from working class backgrounds do not ‘lack aspiration’. Indeed, for many, their aspirations are often so high as to be potentially unrealistic. This ranges from the many working class young people in inner city schools that express a wish to be doctors and lawyers, to those who aspire to be professional footballers or X-Factor finalists (the latter much complained about by FE practitioners in our recent focus groups). Supporting the research in this regard, working class young people in our recent focus groups maintained universally that their parents desperately wanted them to do well in education, and to secure good jobs. However, what they also reported was their parents’ lack of knowledge and resources to be able to offer meaningful help and advice in this regard. This lack of information also applies to the young people themselves, who often have little idea as to the qualifications necessary, and routes (often involving significant financial cost) involved in accessing their desired occupations. What is urgently needed is better information and advice to these young people, who lack the knowledge, networks and other aspects of social capital so effectively deployed by their middle-class peers.

Moreover, for many other working class young people, ‘aspiration’ is being systematically killed by a schooling system which informs them they are failing. There is a raft of educational research to support this point, notably that of Prof Diane Reay (Cambridge). In an increasingly segregated education system, working class young people are concentrated in the lowest streams, and (as Dr Ruth Lupton shows), often in poor quality schools. Although they begin school at a disadvantage, the achievement gap widens as they proceed through the system. Young people are not slow to understand the messages of being placed in low sets and so on – and as they pick up the message that they are perceived as ‘slow’ and ‘not academic, unsurprisingly aspirations for ‘brainy’ professions and occupations fall. This is a logical response. The psychological impact of such understanding and self-perception is not to be underestimated. This also has a generational effect, as many parents who have had bad educational experiences wish to protect their own children from ‘unrealistic’ and painfully disappointing investment in education.

What I am arguing, then, is that the blithe bandying of the trope of ‘aspiration’, and the self-satisfied projection of deficit onto working class families’ ‘lack’, covers a British reality that comprises a systematic smashing of dreams for many working class young people, in an education system wherein still only half young people achieve the standard 5 A*-C including maths and English at GCSE.


Ends and Means

February 4, 2011 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Economy 

Do the ends justify the means?

There has been much discussion recently on how to get more people to volunteer but how important a goal is this? How much would we be willing to sacrifice to see this goal achieved? My guess is that the answer for most people would be “not much”.

Matthew Taylor has written on his misgivings on what he calls “involunteering” i.e. forcing people to volunteer.

I recently read two pieces of research which found that more people would volunteer if there was more income inequality and if people were less satisfied with public services.

I am certainly not saying that we should hope for either, however, these observations do raise lots of questions about how much of a goal increased volunteering really is.

Indeed, perhaps one of the (many) PR problems with Cameron’s idea of The Big Society is that it appears to be both a means (reforming public services, training community organisers etc…) and an end (people feeling more responsible for their area and more empowered). Without making this split clear it’s hard for us to debate which means we are or are not willing to tolerate for which ends.

Big Society(5): When the Squealing Starts…

November 12, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain, Social Economy 

In the context of broader public service cuts, yesterday’s Guardian featured a chilling headline regarding Wednesday’s direct action against student tuition fees:  This is Just the Beginning. Partly from watching this relatively benign, but portentous protest, it has become clear to me that whatever form the Big Society takes, political conflict will be part of it.

At a recent RSA event on the subject, BBC Home Editor Mark Easton opened by reminding the audience that the Big Society was fundamental to Cameron’s political vision, and not just a passing fad buoyed by a catchy phrase. He alluded to a meeting between Cameron and senior civil servants in the summer:

“Let me be very clear”,  said Cameron.  ”I do not want you to think your role is to guarantee outcomes of public services. Nor to directly intervene in organisations to directly improve their performance….You should simply create the conditions in which performance will improve….replacing bureaucractic accountability with democratic accountability…If you want to make targets, set new rules, impose restrictions, don’t bother.”

The implication was that Cameron sees ‘the Big Society’ as a place with radically decentralised accountability, and with Whitehall public servants creating the minimal facilitating conditions.

Mark Easton also used the striking expression “When the squealing starts” to refer to protests over public service cuts. Wednesday featured some squealing, but as the Guardian suggested, this may just be the beginning.

In the context of accountability and squealing, I found Anna Coote’s take of the promise and perils of the Big Society informed and sophisticated (based on NEF‘s recently released report.) The two core lines that caught my attention were:

“The phrase may sound like apple pie and motherhood, but is actually a major programme for structural reform. It’s the social policy that makes the economic policy of the spending review politically possible.”


“The Big society story makes the public sending cuts possible, but the cuts make the best ideals of the big society impossible to realise.”

“The phrase may sound like apple pie and motherhood, but is actually a major programme for structural reform. It’s the social policy that makes the economic policy of the spending review politically possible.” -Anna Coote

The core argument seems very sound to me, and is built on the idea that what is needed to engage in the Big Society- capactiy, access and time, are unequally distributed.  Moreover, as Anna Coote indicated, people opt to volunteer when things are optional, convivial, small scale and life enhancing. But the Big Society sounds conditional, formalised, complicated, and hard graft. And if Volunteering doesn’t take off, the Big Society is in peril.

I found Jonty Olliff-Cooper‘s response somewhat obtuse, given the acuity of the critiques. By his own admission, his appreciation for the Big Society was based on a theory of civil society, rather than the intracacies of practice, but he seemingly failed to recognise that this was precisely Anna Coote’s point- that the best of the theory- the things that can genuinely get people excited, will not, perhaps cannot, be realised in practice.

The Guardian’s Patrick Butler took a similarly sceptical line, fearing the naivety of the vision of ‘Pre-lapsarian self-help nirvana’ and saying that in place of Big Society idealism, he would like to see some Big Society realism.

Like many at the RSA, I instinctively like the idea of the Big Society in abstract, because it encapsualtes so many of the major themes of our work. However, in light of NEF’s report we need to concede that whatever the Big Society is, or could be, it cannot be adaquately understood or appreciated outside of our current economic context.

Some are more unequal than others…

October 26, 2010 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Economy 

Like many people, I’ve been mildly fascinated by last week’s events at Manchester United.  For those of you who are totally detached from football, Wayne Rooney declared mid-week that he wanted to leave the club, claiming that it lacked the ambition and funds to compete at the highest level in the future.  He then, at the end of the week and after much agonising in the press and the Man Utd boardroom and changing room, did a complete U-turn and signed a new 5-year contract which doubled his income to £180,000 a week.

We’ll never know whether this was an extraordinarily crude negotiation ploy to double his salary, naivity on Rooney’s part, or guile on the part of Sir Alex Ferguson the manager – or a mixture of the three.  But whatever lies behind the scenes, what I find really interesting is the way in which the saga has been reported, and the apparent response from the Man Utd fans, because it speaks volumes about British attitudes to inequality and community.

The fact that a 25-year-old footballer will now earn the median UK annual income of around £25k every day for the next five years has attracted considerably less attention than the heartache the uncertainty has caused fans and the task Rooney now has of winning back their trust.

This is the week in which 500,000 public-sector job losses were announced; in which cuts in spending and public services have been vigorously denounced as regressive and defended just as strenuously as fair; in which Goldman Sachs felt obliged to cut its ‘compensation’ fund for employees but still offered an average of £236,000 per employee; and in which the Downing Street website published salary details for senior Whitehall civil servants in the name of transparency.  Inequality and fairness are as high on the agenda as they have ever been.  And yet the fact that a 25-year-old footballer will now earn the median UK annual income of around £25k every day for the next five years has attracted considerably less attention than the heartache the uncertainty has caused fans and the task Rooney now has of winning back their trust.

It seems likely to me that such gross inequality is seen as acceptable in Rooney’s case, but not in the case of bankers and public servants, because of the influence of community.  Man Utd fans have a relationship with Rooney that, while not truly personal, is intense and two-way.  They love what he does on the pitch, appreciate the effect that he has in cementing the community of fans, and at some level recognise that he makes their lives better.  He’s also ‘one of us’, and could be the boy from down the street.

The opposite is true of bankers and senior civil servants: despite the fact that they probably contribute more to this country, as far as the average person is concerned they are faceless, remote and disconnected from any aspect of community life.  As a result, they are pilloried for having incomes which, while considerable, are a fraction of Rooney’s.  (It will take Rooney a whole week to earn what the top civil servants take home in a year.)

My point in all this is that the context in which inequality manifests itself is all important.  Obvious inequality has been painted as a negative force, leading to increased stress, violence, health problems and other pathologies.  But perhaps it can also be used ‘for good’.  The RSA’s Connected Communities project has investigated community ties in New Cross Gate, a multiply-deprived area of South East London which borders the more affluent Telegraph Hill conservation area.  There is considerable local inequality here, as I highlighted in a previous post on this blog, and little interaction between the two areas.  But there is also potential for this inequality to be put to good use, if Telegraph Hill residents can be encouraged to engage with their neighbours in New Cross Gate and use their greater affluence, connections and capabilities to improve lives and community ties.

Inequality in the UK is not going to go away, but does it need to? The goals Wayne Rooney scores are more important to Man Utd fans than the fact that he earns so much more than them, and fans recognise that he wouldn’t be playing for them if he didn’t earn so much.  Could the same be true in areas like New Cross Gate; could local inequality not only be overlooked, but also appreciated, if it is put to good use?  And if this happens across the UK, in the context of the Big Society or otherwise, could greater engagement between rich and poor start to change the terms on which inequality is viewed?

Small worlds and lost diamonds

Fairness seems a recurrent theme of late. Today’s breaking news cries: UK society divided and unfair, report claims.”

That ‘report claims’ gets me every time. UK society is unfair: we do not need social network analysis to tell us that who you know matters. UK society is divided: the world is only ‘small’ (all six billon, eight hundred million of us) because we inhabit very specific parts of it.

But my science only gets me so far:  I can construct you a diagram that highlights divisions; others can produce research that suggests that inequality fosters both unhappiness and unsafe societies; academics can debate as to what the conflicting libertarian and egalitarian views of fairness are.  Yet birds of a feather flock; we fear difference and help our kind; and if inequality and stigma become the very lay of the land, then it is hard to see them.

If it is most often those born at the top that rise to it, we must either believe that it is only these children that hold the seeds of future success, or we are victims of a collective insanity that allows raw diamonds to pass for pebbles, as we laboriously polish cubic zirconia.

Our flocking and fearing are very human, but are they fair? Fair for me is that distribution of benefits and duties that reflects our conception of human beings.  If we understand all human beings to be equal, then that distribution should reflect this. If a woman is worth half of a man, then so too is her testimony. Whilst this all very much ties into how I view human rights (a post for another day), and borrows from Rawls in a way both outmoded and possibly to his displeasure, this understanding of fair is very important for the good of society.

Leaving the various statistical squabbles to more accomplished statisticians and their point-scoring, this unfair distribution of opportunity harms not just the individual but, lest we forget this is in our liberal age, it harms the collective. Our collective talent is our collective wealth, but this is squandered to stigma and lack of vision. If it is most often those born at the top that rise to it, we must either believe that it is only these children that hold the seeds of future success, or we are victims of a collective insanity that allows raw diamonds to pass for pebbles, as we laboriously polish cubic zirconia.

In my recent dissertation, alongside positing an understanding of social capital as the indicator for whether the right to participation is fulfilled (another day!), I followed the development of five girls as they took part in a film making and human rights course. These girls found a voice, found themselves as agents of change , and will soon find themselves addressing panels of their fellow residents, and Universty of London MA students. In this project, as in others I have worked on, we see that little is needed to turn aspirations around. And it is our aspirations that drive us.

The UK has shown us that equal opportunities is not equality of opportunity. If social mobility can be understood as sets of escalators, with some automatically on the up, and others automatically being driven down, then it must be surely viewed as discriminatory to not focus efforts on halting the downward trends of the marginalised ‘escalators’, and to instead provide equal amounts of electricity and oil and wish them both well.  The fact that in a liberal society any individual can aim for anything in theory, must not be used to obscure the fact that in a liberal capitalist economy individuals are constrained by their societal and economic circumstances in practice. Life isn’t fair, but less stigma and more tailored and deliberate help to those handed a raw deal might help us on our way. And here my science may help.

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