Sunday, 30 January 2011

Cutting Sure Start would be an own goal for the future of our children.

The children are the future, a clich├ęd sentiment perhaps but one that also happens to be true. One of the things by which a country is judged is the way it treats its children and at the moment Britain is at risk of failing that test.

At least it is if the awful possibility of 250 Sure Start centres in England closing due to funding cuts suggested by a survey conducted for the charities The Day-care Trust and 4Children becomes a reality. Half of the 900 centre managers who responded to the survey said they expected their funding to be cut and 7% expected their centre to close as a result.

Defending what looks like a savage blow to the front line services the coalition government pledged to protect from the worst ravages of the cuts Children’s Minister Sarah Teather told the BBC on Friday there was enough money to maintain the current service and reminded local authorities of their legal duty to provide an adequate number of children’s centres and to consult with the public before making closures.

All very correct I’m sure, but it doesn’t sidestep that under the Early Intervention Grant, touted by the government as a way of supporting threatened children’s centres the funding on offer would be 11% lower than that available previously.

Anne Longfield of 4Children said that children from vulnerable families depended on access to Sure Start and that ‘although local authorities have some extremely difficult spending decisions to make’ protecting services for children from disadvantaged families now would ‘lead to real savings in the long term.’

Anand Shukla, the acting Chief Executive of the Day-care Trust said that ‘behind every children’s centre facing closure is a community of families devastated to be losing one of their most valued local services.’

Helen Donohoe head of public policy at Action for Children called the plans to cut funding for Sure Start ‘a financial own-goal’ on the part of the government saying that children should not ‘bear the human cost of the country’s deficit,’ before making the point that providing support to families from an early stage meant it was more likely to work in the long term.

I don’t know if you can score an own-goal in the Eton Wall Game, but it is clear that that is exactly what out over privileged and out of touch government is about to do on this important issue. David Cameron, in his cuddly ‘Dave’ incarnation has always been enthusiastic about displaying his credentials as a family man. In private that might well be true, but in terms of public policy his attitudes make the Child Catcher from Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang seem like Mary Poppins.

The flaws of New Labour were legion and probably don’t need to be rehearsed again here, but for all their tendency to try and control everything from the centre they did have some laudable ideas. One of which was that the best way to break the cycle of disadvantage and dependency is to intervene early and to provide consistent support, something that Sure Start has done magnificently from day one; so why are the government so keen to kill it off now?

It has, in part, much to do with a desire to trash every aspect of their predecessor’s belief that everything can’t be handed over to the whims of the market; but mostly it is due to the malign influence of TINA.

Who she you might ask, not, alas the protagonist in a Profumo style scandal but the acronym for the biggest flaw in the thinking of the men and women currently in Downing Street, there is no alternative is their answer to every question raised about the pace and direction of the spending cuts. We are sold the line that every lost service is the direct consequence of circumstances beyond the control of the government; that is a flat lie.

If the government used existing legislation and a little backbone to set about collecting unpaid taxes from the likes of Top Shop and Vodaphone there would be no need to slash public services to the bone. They won’t though, because the sad truth about a government that claims to be taking a tough line on the economy is that they are afraid to stand up to the banks and big business; so they pick on children instead.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Family Fortunes.

California in the 1980’s, a man on the run dumps his son at a playground and disappears. Flash forward almost thirty years and Mike Wingate has a family and is on the verge of making it big as a property developer, the mystery of his past is about, thanks to a seemingly chance encounter, to come back to life. When it does he will have to rediscover a side of himself he thought had been long buried in order to save his family.

It’s a little early in the year for me to be handing out awards, but You’re Next has to be in the running it be one of the best thrillers I’ve read in 2011. Gregg Hurwitz has created a plot that turns on an original way of evading US gambling laws powerful enough to tempt the greedy to do the most awful things in order to keep hold of their ill gotten gains.

The action comes thick and fast with Wingate and Shep, a friend from the past he thought he had escaped, battling to evade the bad guys and the authorities, the power of payola complicating matters by making it hard to tell where the demarcation line between the two lies. Hurwitz writes well about the emotional cost of not knowing your true origins, the power of friendships forged during childhood and the lengths people will go to in order to protect what they feel is theirs by right.

This is a genuinely gripping book that ticks all the right boxes to be a big hit whilst at the same time being unafraid to deal with the emotional fallout of the events it describes.
You’re Next
Gregg Hurwitz
(Sphere, 2011)
Shots, Wednesday 26th January 2011.

Friday, 21 January 2011

More ‘facts’ and less technique

Michael Gove, easily the busiest man in British politics has been at it again, prescribing changes to the education system whilst loudly proclaiming not to be in favour of prescription I mean. This time it is the National Curriculum used in England’s schools he has in his sights.

The curriculum was, he told the BBC at the launch of a major review ‘sub standard’ and had contributed to Britain falling behind many of its international competitors in educational achievement. There was, he said, too much emphasis on teaching methods and not nearly enough ‘facts’.

He wants to remove ‘unnecessary prescription’ (that word again) over what is taught in schools and has set up a review chaired by Tim Oates, Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment, to stir things up saying : ‘I’m not going to be coming up with any prescriptive lists. I just think there should be facts.’

This isn’t, of course, true, like every Education Secretary before him Dr Gove has arrived at the bedside of the nation’s ailing education system with a patent medicine of his own brewing in his black bag. In this case what he feels we need is a return to the traditional way of teaching history, meaning long lists of dates and lots of lovely facts.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph on Thursday of this week he lamented the lack of a ‘connected narrative’ in the way history is taught in English schools, with students instead hopping about between Hitler, Henry (the eighth of course) and the Holocaust without figures of the stature of Winston Churchill and Florence Nightingale getting more than a passing mention if they’re lucky.

Education, he wrote, should be delivered via a curriculum that embodies ‘their cultural and scientific inheritance enhances their understanding of the world around them and that introduces them to the best that has been thought and written.’

Stirring language backed, I don’t doubt, by the most noble of sentiments, you can almost hear the patriotic music starting to swell along with countless youthful hearts as they learn for the first time about Francis Drake and Richard the Lionheart. As ever though when change to the education system is broached the heroic rhetoric is interrupted by a raspberry blown by the teaching unions.

Chris Keates of the NASUWT said that teachers wanted ‘another curriculum review like a hole in the head’, and accused the government of being ‘already determined that children should have a 1950’s style curriculum.’

This theme was taken up by Andy Burnham, Gove’s Labour shadow, who said the Education Secretary was ‘stuck in the past, foisting his 1950’s vision of education on to today’s schools.’

I’m sure even a dyed in the wool traditionalist like Michael Gove doesn’t advocate a return to the days of teachers wearing mortar boards and black gowns and you have to admire his enthusiasm for the proper teaching of history. Unfortunately, as with many of the ideas buzzing around in his busy little brain, he has missed the real target for reform.

Teaching a clear narrative in history, or any other subject for that matter, is important, but so is the way that narrative is interpreted. Stirring stories about the men who built the empire won’t do in an age when there are legitimate questions to be asked about their attitudes and actions.

Far more troubling though is the attitude Mr Gove shows to vocational learning, of course students need a sound academic foundation but that does not mean vocational subjects should be downgraded; the very idea really is a throwback to the 1950’s. If the vocational qualifications currently on offer aren’t fit for purpose, then change them, bring businesses in to deliver the training; but don’t write off students who don’t fit into the academic template.

If this review of the national curriculum fails to fully address the problem of how to provide decent vocational education for Britain’s young people then it will join all the others in the graveyard of history.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Labour gain, not all that much really.

On Thursday Labour retained the seat of Oldham East and Saddleworth at the by-election called following the disgracing of former Immigration Minister Phil Woolas with a comfortable, if not overwhelming majority. In her acceptance speech winning candidate Debbie Abrahams said it was a ‘wake up call’ to the coalition government.

I hate to play the wicked fairy at the christening, but it is really nothing of the sort. Ms Abrahams, who for a week or so will be feted by her party as the next big political thing, for falling for the hubris of the moment, but Ed Milliband and his team, have no excuse for being so foolish.

However satisfying it is to win a by-election, or even the spot prize at the constituency Christmas dinner dance come to that, following the drubbing they received at the general election, Labour are a long way from being out of trouble.

Despite the best efforts of the media to persuade us otherwise the coalition still shows every sign of holding firm and making it through to the next election. This is due, in no small part, to the discovery by several senior liberal Democrats that they like the trappings of power enough to smother their previously active consciences; but mostly it is due to the failure of Labour to provide a real alternative.

The party lacks policies, direction and even, it would seem, even the most basic conception of what it is for or who it represents. At a time when economics is the biggest game in town the party has chosen Alan Johnson as its shadow chancellor, an affable man with a disarming honesty about his limitations, sadly though it is the very limitations about which he is so honest that have scuppered his credibility.

Then there is the small problem of Ed Milliband himself, I don’t for a moment doubt his intelligence or his commitment to the Labour cause, but his transparently earnest approach seems better suited to the student union than the bear pit of Westminster politics. His appearances at PMQs are no less excruciating than those of Gordon Brown and even his smile seems to be heading in a similarly strange and unsettling direction.

The real problem is that under the leadership of this well meaning, but not particularly effective man, Labour risks turning into the political equivalent of the Church of England. An organisation with faultlessly good intentions and, alas, no idea when it comes to communicating them to the outside world.

If you need an example of this look no further than Milliband’s call in a speech to the Fabian Society for disgruntles Liberal Democrats to join Labour, not a bad idea, but not a viable strategy for winning an election either. Experience should have taught him that when a party based on ideology loses touch with the feelings of its supporters they are more likely to not vote at all than to vote for someone else, as happened within Labour during the Blair years.

The real solution for reviving the Labour Party isn’t to be found in the erudite discussion of the Fabians, instead it has to be sought on the streets and estates of Britain. Put simply Labour has to go back to its roots as a bottom up party that lives its socialism by helping individuals and communities overcome their social and economic problems.

The party leadership, like Ms Abrahams should by all means rejoice in their victory in Oldham East and Saddleworth, but they should see it for what it is; not the beginning of the end of their journey back to power but rather just the end of the beginning of what will be a long and painful journey.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Earth calling planet bureaucrat

Here’s a little thought experiment for you, you’re the head of a government funded quango and you haven’t spent all the money allocated to you for the year, do you A) congratulate yourself for being financially prudent and think about how you can be even more so in the coming year or B) think of ways to blow the lot in the hope that KERCHING! The government will give you loads more money.

If you’re running United Kingdom Trade and investment (UKIT) it seems you will always favour the second option. As evidenced by the emails from former UKIT head Sir Andrew Cahn leaked to the Daily Mail this week in which he asked senior colleagues if they could ‘think of what we might do with the money’, meaning, of course how can we waste it without getting caught.

All this with the tacit, at least, approval of the Foreign Office, with whom according to the leaked emails they were ‘heading for an understanding’ that both parties wanted the money ‘out of the door.’ In a statement to the BBC the Foreign Office said that talks with bodies such as UKIT were commonplace, although some of the language used on this occasion was ‘unacceptable.’

Needless to say this hasn’t gone down at all well with the opposition, quite properly shadow Foreign Secretary Yvette Cooper attacked the Foreign Office for cutting spending on ‘schemes to tackle international drug trafficking and organised crime’ while bodies such as UKIT were ‘rushing to get money out of the door;’ under the leadership of William Hague the FO was, she said, ‘in chaos.’

Matthew Sinclair of the Taxpayers Alliance told the BBC it was shocking that while businesses and individuals were ‘working hard to look after their money, UKIT are casting around for ways to spend it.’ It was, he said, confirmation that in the public sector ‘too often spending is an end in itself.’

If you ever needed an example of how far the top tier of bureaucrats have departed from the concerns of ordinary citizens then look no further than this sorry episode.

At a time when the CBI is warning that the economic outlook for the first half of 2011 could be ‘volatile’ UKIT aren’t tightening their belts; they’re heading off to buy brand new hand made ones with public money.

CBI Director Richard Lambert told that ‘there are bumpy times ahead for businesses in Britain. Travelling round the country I find that many people are positive about current trading conditions, but extremely worried about what the next year might bring.’ There probably wouldn’t, he said, be a double dip recession and he predicted growth of 2% for this year rising to 2.4% in 2012; the inference being that to get to even these modest levels of prosperity the woods we will have to pass through will be very dark and scary indeed.

When the GMB trade union predicts 200,000 public sector workers will lose their jobs in 2011 as councils cut spending by 28% the people in charge of UKIT are spending money like a mob of drunken sailors. Even if the more conservative estimate of 140,000 job losses in the public sector made by the Local Government Association is correct that is still a lot of livelihoods lost and lives potentially ruined; a million pounds on its own might not do much to help; but taking it away from a quango and giving it to people in genuine need would be a good start.

The behaviour of UKIT, not to mention that of all the other quangos who were lucky enough not to have their emails leaked to the press, goes way beyond being merely unacceptable. It touches heights of insensitivity seldom reached since Marie Antoinette decided it would be fun to play at being a milkmaid whilst the people of France starved.

Bureaucrats, like the rich in F Scott Fitzgerald’s assessment, are different, or at least they think they are and so don’t have to behave with restraint or common sense. It is time for someone to show them the error of their ways.