Sunday, 28 August 2011

Bursting the ‘too cool for school’ bubble.

Its exam results week and so every news report has been full of footage of excited teens jumping for joy as they get their GCSE results. All bright eyes and boundless enthusiasm, like an episode of Glee with a less infectious soundtrack and wonkier teeth.

Yet again the number of students gaining A to C grades (70% this time) has risen for the twenty third year in a row, the number of A to A* grades has risen too up from 22.6% last year to 23.2% this time round. For a while things sounded more than a little like a Soviet factory year end report, all roads lead onwards to success, but, of course, there is a fly in the ointment; several flies in fact.

For a start the joy of the nation’s teens must have been dampened by the annual chorus of harrumphing from middle aged hacks that exams are getting easier and schools putting children under ever more pressure to jump through the testing hoop meaning that any wider understanding of the subjects being taught is steadily being eroded.

There is also the small matter that even if you believe take the results at face value the news isn’t all good, in fact for boys, of whom only 19.6% gained A to A* grades compared to 26.5% of girls its slipping past the ‘mediocrity welcomes careful drivers’ sign and heading towards downright bad. A government spokesman told the BBC that the gap between boys’ and girls’ results was a ‘concern’, but that improvements to teaching in primary schools would help to improve the situation.

That sounds like an overly complacent response in the light of some other results that were released this week over which nobody felt much like jumping up and down for joy. This week the number of teenagers not in education employment or training, NEETS as the tabloids like to call them, rose from 16.3% of eighteen to twenty four year olds to 18.4%.

NEET, like CHAV is an ugly piece of shorthand that, like all such terms, implicitly condones prejudice by removing the humanity from the people to whom it is applied, it is though impossible not to recognise there is a serious problem. Unemployment can, as a spokesperson for the Prince’s Trust told the BBC this week ‘have a brutal impact on young people with thousands suffering from mental health problems, feelings of self loathing and panic attacks.’

It is also hard not to draw a parallel between high youth unemployment and boys’ poor performance at school. The kids of either gender who get a fistful of GCSE’s might not get a job straight away and when they do it might not be what they wanted to do, but the kids who come away from school with nothing will invariably end up in trouble of one sort or another.

The government has made promises about tackling youth unemployment, introducing a Work Programme and funding more adult apprenticeships, but as ever its policies are inconsistent; any good work done by the initiatives mentioned previously is likely to be undone by the scrapping of the EMA and savage cuts to careers advice for young people.

The problem of underachieving boys is one that requires a genuinely joined up response of the sort we are uniquely bad at developing in this country. Instead everyone with a stake in the issue seems intent on fighting their own little battle with the result that the wider war never moves beyond a messy stalemate.

Schools need to recognise that to succeed in education boys need structure, discipline and competition; three things that have been absent from modern child centred theories of education. We also need to develop a system of vocational education that gives non-academic, but still intelligent students, a means of gaining the skills and self esteem they need to thrive.

We also have a massive problem when it comes to using popular culture to show boys the value of education. The sorry parade of bling draped footballers and rap stars held up as role models just don’t do the job, in fact the implied celebration of all that is boorish, stupid and obsessed with instant gratification attacks the notion of diligent hard work that underpins success in education and the wider world. When this is allied with the ‘cult of cool’ that sees anything requiring effort or quiet reflection as being either boring or suspect the resulting combination is truly toxic.

Education is the route away from a difficult beginning to a better and more satisfying future; something the countries in the Far East against whom we are competing understand implicitly, as do many of those on mainland Europe. In Britain we have made the mistake of thinking that education and equality for all matter less than being a ‘safe haven’ for investor’s money; that whole sections of society can be abandoned without hope or opportunity.

A few weeks ago we saw the net result of such thinking played out as violent chaos on the streets of London and other major cities. If we’ve learnt anything from what happened then it should be that education and opportunity are the best defence against the mob.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Hysterical ‘toughness’ won’t solve the problems that caused the riots.

The broken glass has been swept up, the royals and politicians have posed for photographs outside the burnt out shops; the riot is receding into memory and so the knee jerk reaction can get fully under way. Over the past week or so more than twelve hundred people have passed through the courts on charges relating to the civil disturbances and 65% have ended up in custody.

As a result the Howard League for Prison Reform and a chorus of prison governors have cried out that the system cannot cope. They haven’t been listened to because their voices are simply inaudible above the massed bellowing for a ‘tough’ line to be taken with the rioters.

The concerns raised by Lord Macdonald, a former Director of Public Prosecutions, that the ‘robust’ sentences being handed down by the courts lack consistency and could in some cases result in ‘injustices’. Speaking to the BBC this week he said it was ‘difficult to see, on the facts that we know that there’s a justification for the disparity we have seen in some of the sentences we have seen handed out.’

Sentences such as the five month one handed down to a woman who received stolen goods in the shape of a pair of shorts looted during the riots and the four year term given to two young men who attempted to incite rioting in their home town by using Facebook. Common sense prevailed in the first case and the sentence was reduced to a more appropriate order to do community service, but the Facebook two are still incarcerated even though not a single person responded to their attempts to unleash hell on the local high street.

The Courts Service says that it hasn’t come under political pressure to take a hard line with people appearing before it charged with offences relating to the riots and I’m inclined to believe them. That hasn’t though stopped politicians from jumping aboard what is a very inviting band wagon. On Wednesday David Cameron praised the courts for deciding to ‘send a tough message’ to anyone contemplating further disorder on the streets.

He is also in favour of switching off Twitter and Facebook during any future disturbances and Home Secretary Theresa May thinks imposing curfews on whole neighbourhoods is the answer. Even the usually sensible Iain Duncan Smith got in on the act saying that the social problems we face mean Britain is in ‘the last chance saloon.’ He went on to say of the rioting ‘This is our warning. That wasn’t the crisis, but the crisis is coming.’

What does it matter if a lot of violent hoodies are sent to jail, isn’t it what they deserve? It is certainly what the public want to see happening. All of which is well and good, but I’m not at all sure that it is the job of either the courts or politicians to give the public what they think they want, because doing so is often a mistake.

Politicians are required to think about the consequences of their policies and in this instance they may be dire. Yes the people who took part in the riots should be punished, the ring leaders should certainly be jailed, but simply cramming everyone connected into prison is no solution, in fact it could make things much worse.

Prison should be a tough environment in which it is impossible for inmates to escape contemplating the consequences of their actions, but it should also be a place where they engage with constructive activities that will help to change their behaviour. What we risk creating is a problem similar to that in many large American jails where prison is a brutal parallel universe where the most dangerous members of society are ‘parked’ out of sight.

Most of the people trooping through the magistrates courts overt the past two weeks should receive their punishment in the community and it should have to it a strong element of rehabilitation. That, despite the howls from the hang em and flog em brigade, isn’t a soft option if the programmes used to deliver it are properly monitored and it might just achieve positive results.

There is in all this new found toughness from the Prime Minister who used to want to hug hoodies and let sunshine win the day a distinct element of playing to the gallery. Putting on an act for the party faithful who have never really warmed to him ahead of solving the problems of the country he was elected to lead.

What we need isn’t a cynical attempt to tie the moral and social malaise of our country to a single disenfranchised class who can then be demonised because they mostly don’t vote. What we need is a political leader with a vision that extends beyond treating reducing the deficit within a single parliament as if it is a national triumph of Agincourt type proportions.

A politician capable of taking on vested interests in the City, our tough PM tends to turn to jelly whenever it is suggested he takes on the bankers over tax and bonuses; enough of a genuine modernizer to recognise that our political system will continue to disenfranchise whole communities because the way we elect our representatives is flawed and unfair; and courageous enough to use a British New Deal to create jobs and encourage investment by fixing our crumbling infrastructure.

David Cameron isn’t that man, neither is Ed Milliband or Nick Clegg, all three are a product of their time, middle managers obsessed with statistics and their own status and bereft of any kind of vision. Only a man or woman capable of challenging the status quo by the methods described above can really hope to address the problems we face. All the rest is just the posturing of little boys pretending to be ‘tough’ because they are really scared out of their wits.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Only building a consensus on how to heal our society can save it from descending into chaos.

This week the eyes of the world were on Britain because this was the week when our city centres went up in flames.

Before we go any further some important cards have to be put on the table. The riots that started in Tottenham and spread to other areas of London and then to cities such as Manchester, Birmingham and Liverpool were wrong, despite shrill claims to the contrary they had nothing to do with either the troubled relationship between the Metropolitan Police and young black males or the government spending cuts. They were the vicious and inexcusable actions of a mob who seemed to be enraged with the world for not obliging by providing them with the objects they desired, designer trainers and flat screen televisions for the most part, without having to put in any effort of their own.

Legitimate questions remain to be asked about the shooting by the Met of Mark Duggan; taking to the streets in protest against spending cuts or any other government policy is a fundamental democratic right; both of these things have been seriously compromised by the actions of the mob. The moment you throw a brick through a window then however just your cause may have been beforehand you instantly remove yourself from the political argument.

In a statement to the House of Commons Prime Minister David Cameron said ‘What we have seen on the streets of London and other cities is completely unacceptable,’ he described the actions of the rioters as ‘criminality pure and simple;’ and pledged that his government would not ‘allow a culture of fear to exist on our streets.’ All of which was very much par for the political course, even though the debate that followed was heavy on posturing and light on forensic analysis of the situation.

I am less convinced though by some of the things he has said outside of parliament, earlier in the week he described pockets of British society as being ‘sick’ and has expressed support for taking draconian measures such as removing benefits from convicted rioters and evicting them from council housing against people who ‘loot an pillage their own community.’ Perhaps he imagines that by making people who live chaotic lives characterized in many cased by addiction and extreme violence destitute and homeless too will cause them to renounce their evil ways and become church wardens. His response when challenged on this by a reporter on the BBC’s Northwest Tonight programme: ‘Obviously that will mean they’ve got to be housed somewhere- they’ll have to find housing in the private sector- and that will be tougher for them, but they should have thought of that beforehand,’ suggest that his mouth was accelerating rapidly through the gears whilst his brain still had the handbrake on.

Labour leader Ed Milliband’s response to the situation was little better and seemed to consist of a hand wringing admission that he regretted that ‘inequality wasn’t reduced under the last Labour government,’ and that under the premierships of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown Labour ‘did better at building up the fabric of our country than the ethic of our country.’ His analysis of why the riots happened extended no further than blaming it on a ‘me first culture’ and his prescribed solution is for a public inquiry to be held. Quite what this would produce other than another volume to add to the commons library is unclear. Aides pointed out that unlike Deputy PM Nick Clegg Mr Milliband got a favourable reception when he toured the riot torn streets of the capital; mostly you suspect because hardly anyone recognized him.

The response of the right to the riots seems to be a sort of crisis of wounded machismo, the Prime Minister and other senior government figures dropped the ball dramatically by not returning to the UK soon enough so now they jerking their knees frantically to prove how tough they really are. The left seem to be hamstrung by an unwillingness to make judgements and a characteristic obsession with process. None of this sets us on a path towards finding a solution to the underlying cause of the unrest.

To do that politicians would need to face up to something they fear more than an angry mob armed with Molotov cocktails; the need to build a cross party consensus on how to heal our broken society. That would involve the left having to admit the value of responsibility and self restraint and that liberal ideals are meaningless if they are not allied to a willingness to differentiate between good and bad behaviour and how both should be responded to; the right having to admit that the market can’t solve every problem, sometimes government has to be big enough to step in and take a hand and that it isn’t just the kids on the local council estate who behave in a ‘feral’ and selfish manner much of the city is culpable of that sort of thing too.

Consensus is not, of course the same as unthinking conformity, that is partly what got us into this mess, there is still a role for a robust exchange between the government and opposition and within both political parties on matters of policy, but the overall framework would be a shared desire to work towards the common good.

Instead we have been presented so far with a massive and massively ineffectual displacement activity that may well exacerbate the problems of our atomised society. A really tough response would be to punish criminal behaviour whilst understanding its underlying causes; working for the long term to build a society that includes everyone and a popular culture that offers the young a more positive aspiration that a futile chase after fame.

None of that could be achieved quickly or without difficulty, but what is the alternative? More riots and more panic stricken thrashing around disguised as making a tough response to disorder on the part of our disconnected political leaders whilst the chaos on the streets gets a little worse each time. I doubt very much that that is what the vast majority of people living in poor areas who daily face up to the difficulties of their lives without rioting in the streets want; and it is certainly not what they or the rest of us deserve.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Breaking its links with the unions will do nothing to refound the Labour Party.

What is it with Ed Milliband? This isn’t a rhetorical question I’d really like someone to tell me why he is quite so useless.

Things have been going well for the Labour leader of late, the phone hacking scandal has shaken the coalition to its core and silenced his critics within the party. A recent operation on his adenoids has, so we’re told, changed his voice into one that sounds a little less like that of an earnest sixth former and a lot more like that of a potential prime minister.

Then with the neat facility for snatching disaster from the jaws of victory we have come to expect during his year in charge he has set in motion plans to blow every advantage he has accrued once the conference season gets under way.

Ed Milliband, dubbed Red Ed by the papers for his links with the trades unions now plans to push through proposals to limit the influence exerted over the party by the unions at the party conference in Liverpool next month. This would see the union vote reduced to below 50% and their role in choosing the party leader curtailed, even though it was the union vote that helped Ed Milliband beat his brother David to the top job.

Speaking to the Guardian last week an unnamed source close to the Labour leader said : ‘We cannot go on with a system in which unions have 50% of the vote at conference and just three general secretaries control four fifths of that vote.’

The same source went on to say that ‘Ed wants to do this through consensus’ but that he is ‘not going to give the unions a veto on change.’

I’m not sure whether his desire to bring about this divorce by consensual means if possible means that Ed Milliband is sweetly naive or dangerously arrogant; either way the consequences could be disastrous. The first consequence is that the unions will withhold the details of their three million contributors, making it impossible for the party to contact a large body of likely supporters directly. Then there is the small matter of the extent to which contributions made by trades unionists either through direct membership of the party or paying the political levy on their union membership are keeping Labour from the poor house; if they disappear in large numbers the party is bust.

Whatever happens this will almost certainly plunge the Labour Party into a bitter internal wrangle that could last until the 2012 party conference and beyond distracting it from the proper work of an opposition, biffing the government over the head at every opportunity.

Speaking to the Guardian the unnamed party source said ‘Currently the unions are playing hardball but they need to wake up’, somebody certainly needs to wake up but I don’t think it’s the union leaders. It’s Ed who we used to think was red and he’d better do it quickly.

At the moment Ed Milliband for all his undoubted intellect and seemingly genuine desire to do the right thing just doesn’t seem to get it. Under the guise of the recent ‘Refounding Labour’ consultation from whence these proposals originate a miserable clique of New Labour throwbacks are seeking a mandate to continue trampling over the party’s traditions and values.

Their vision is for Labour to become a party that doesn’t have members with a say in the policies on which it campaigns, just a network of neutered ‘supporters’ who get an occasional email from party HQ telling them how marvellous the leadership is and that they should stop worrying their fluffy little heads over what the party stands for. The arrogance with which this vision is pushed forward is shocking, I know of at least one constituency Labour Party where the members weren’t even allowed to discuss ‘Refounding Labour’ the recommendations made by the paid party officials were simply rubber stamped and sent off.

At the best of times this would be a stupid way to behave leading to the sort of decline in active party membership seen during the Blair years; these aren’t anywhere near to being the best of times, Labour is financially and ideologically bankrupt so by endorsing the conclusions of this skewed consultation Ed Milliband risks leading his party down the road to utter disaster.

The old heavy industries might be all but dead and the public sector might be about to take a drastic hit due to the budget cuts, but the game is far from over for the trades unions in fact they could well be on the verge of a renaissance, making maintaining strong links with them something that should be a top priority for the leadership of the Labour Party.

The union’s experience of organising local campaigns in workplaces can easily be translated into organising similar activity in communities, a point that has not been lost on some of the union leaders of whom the people advising Ed Milliband are so dismissive. This would allow the left to hijack the Tory vanity project that is the ‘Big Society’ and use it to build a strong grassroots political movement aimed at creating a fairer society.

If Ed Milliband can’t see this and prefers instead to appease a remote managerial rump of New Labour fanatics who hold the membership in contempt then you have to question his political judgement. In the short term taking this route might preserve his position as leader until 2015, but it won’t win Labour the election held then or give the party a long term future.